Copyright 2013 Jean Rabe
Dear Readers . . . or should I say “Y’all”:
Settle into your lawn chair for this one and pop the top on your favorite brew . . . if you’re of legal age. And you can “get your redneck” on if you’ve a mind to, as WORMS has all those elements—and more.
Call it a creature feature with a touch of gore and a dash of Kentucky charm. Don’t expect the body count to be all that high, as the bodies in this part of the woods . . . well, there ain’t all that many bodies, as some of the hollers don’t even have names. But there is a good bit of blood, I guarantee it.
And there are an awful lot of worms.
Double Tee scowled when the hound stretched out in the dirt. The trees were especially plentiful on this side of the lake and shaded all but the one patch of shoreline the dog had claimed. The boy liked the feel of the sun on his face, but decided not to challenge the dog for it this morning. The bloodhound was old and Double Tee reckoned the heat was good for its aching bones.
The boy put his back against the trunk of a coffeetree, slid down, and waited.
Cranks Lake sat off Stone Mountain Road, the land that spread away from it steep, heavily forested, and with plunging hollows where unincorporated communities hid, most too small to be called towns. Some were even too small to be called hollers. Double Tee was from one of those nameless places.
The boy figured he knew just about every inch of Kentucky’s Harlan County, especially the best spots for trout. Most of the folks who fished this lake did so from the docks across the way or at the mouth of the Martins Fork River. But then most of the folks didn’t know better.
Double Tee’s pole was forty years old—four times his own age, a gift from his grandpa who cleaned out the garage before heading off to a nursing home to await death. It was graphite laid around balsa, still flexible, and with an ancient Pflueger Quadruple casting reel mounted to it, nickel over brass. Double Tee tugged a small plastic box out of his pocket. It held two lures: a faded plug called a Bass-Oreno and a Creek Chub dingbat with a crooked treble. He’d use them if he had to, but he preferred live bait, and his line was already set with a stainless leader and a new hook.
It was Coops’ turn to provide the worms.
Where in the seven levels of tarnation was he? Double Tee would’ve gone digging for the worms himself if Coop was going to clean forget about today and . . .
The dog picked up its muzzle and looked toward the trees, took a sniff, and laid its head back down. The boy sniffed too, smelling the sedge and switchgrass, some bulrush and bottlebrush. There was a hint of sweetness, too, from the duck potato flowers that grew up against the shore, and the wild pinks. The insects made music, and frogs plopping provided the syncopation. Something rustled in the foliage.
“Took you long enough,” Double-Tee said after a moment, eyes fixed on a spot halfway out on the lake. “Me and ol’ Putter were just about to give up on you and turn tail for home.”
“Don’t get your dander up none, Double Tee. Ma said I had to change out all the cat litter boxes before I could take off.”
Double Tee thrust the little lure box back in his pocket. “You got enough worms for both of us?”
“Special ones, Double Tee.”
Double Tee’s real name was Tommy Tuttle, but he didn’t like it. Coop had called him Double Tee one day, and Tommy’d fancied the sound of it. Now everyone at school—including the teachers—called him Double Tee.
Coop sat a big Folgers can next to the coffeewood, dropped his cane pole and visited the hound, vigorously rubbing its belly. Coop’s cutoffs were frayed above his knees, and they ended even, like they’d been carefully fashioned, and his T-shirt with an image of Kenny Chesney on it looked almost new. His hair was wheat-colored, so short he looked practically bald. “How you doing, Putter? What’s my favorite hound been up to?”
“He’s fair to middlin’ today,” Double Tee said. “Getting a might slower.” He looked into the can, packed with rich, black dirt, dug his fingers in, and came up with a lively, long worm. “It’s red.”
“Of course it’s red.” Coop backed away from the dog and joined him. “It’s a red wiggler.”
Double Tee snorted. Coop—Cooper Brown—was thirteen, three years older, though they were in the same grade. Coop’s mom had tried to “home school” him. Double Tee thought she was dumber than a coal bucket and couldn’t even spell s-c-h-o-o-l. A social services woman had talked her into sending Coop and his sisters to Cawood Elementary. There was some sort of threat involved.
“It’s a nightcrawler, not a wiggler. Can’t you tell the difference? So big, we’ll have to split it.” Double Tee tore the worm in two and passed the shorter piece to Coop.
Double Tee had come to Coop’s rescue on the bus the previous fall—every kid in the nearby hollers got bussed to Cawood. Double Tee had kept the other boys from picking on Coop because of his age and the nice clothes he wore, and as a result Coop immediately latched on.
Coop threaded the worm on his hook and plopped it as far out as the pole and line allowed.
Double Tee used more care baiting. The worm, even though ripped in half and skewered by the hook, continued writhing. He looped it to make it look attractive. “That ought to draw some attention. I’m hoping for trout.”
He stood, drawing the pole to the side and casting. The trees were tight and the branches too low-hanging to allow for an over-the-shoulder cast. His line sailed out three times as far as Coop’s.
“I’d like to catch me some trout, too,” Coop said. “We’re gonna split everything, right? Hey!” His red and white stick bobber bounced and he pulled up. “I got one already.” It was a bluegill, a little too small at four or five inches, and so he carefully released it. “A good sign, though.” A pause: “Did you hear Nathaniel and Trixiebelle are going to jump the broom next Sunday afternoon?”
“Hadn’t heard,” Double Tee admitted. “Didn’t know they were courting.”
“Nat got no choice in the marriage matter. Trixiebelle’s in the family way, and her dad is meaner than a striped snake about it. Her dad don’t want the baby born on the wrong side of the blanket, wants it to have a proper last name.”
“Well, that’s a plumb fool reason to get hitched,” Double Tee said. “There’s a lot of single moms in Harlan County.” In fact, his mom was one of them. Double Tee reeled in a silvery rock bass, big enough because it filled both his hands. He looked to Coop, who tossed over a stringer. Double Tee threaded the fish on it through the gills, affixed the stringer to the rusty stake that marked their favorite fishing spot, and slipped it into the water.
“Ma says I got to go to the wedding, on account of Trixiebelle being a first cousin. I really don’t like to get gussied up, Double Tee.”
“Better you than me.” Double Tee couldn’t get gussied up if he wanted to. His wardrobe consisted of four pairs of blue jeans and an assortment of short and long-sleeved T-shirts. “Got another one! A keeper trout.” And on the same piece of worm no less. He grinned wide. This was going to be a good day.
“Want a secret?”
Double Tee raised an eyebrow. He loved gossip, and Coop usually had an interesting supply. “Sure. What’ll it cost me?”
Coop broke a worm in half, threaded part on his hook and tossed the line out. He passed the other half to Double Tee. “You have to eat that.”
Double Tee pulled a face. “Better be a darn good secret.” He popped the worm in his mouth. It twisted against his tongue, refusing to settle down. He worked up some saliva and swallowed it. He swore it wriggled all the way down to his gut. “Give.”
“Nat ain’t the one who knocked up Trixiebelle, but he’s paying the price for it on account of he’d fooled around with her a bit. He don’t know she was courting someone else at the same time. Nat don’t know it ain’t his. Nat will never know it ain’t his.”
Okay, this could be a good secret, Double Tee thought, one that bordered on scandal. This could be prime blackmail material. Double Tee figured he could talk Trixiebelle out of a few fruit pies and several dollars to keep his mouth shut.
“So if Nat don’t know, how do you know?” Double Tee felt a giggle coming on; the worm was churning around in his stomach, tickling him.
“Last week Ma took us to Resurrection Catholic over in Lynch. She’s thinking about converting from Methodist. Says she wants to be born again.” Coop paused to take a larger bluegill off his line, add it to the stringer, and put another half-worm on his hook. “Anyway, there’s a crawl space under the church and I went in. I was looking for dropped change, you know, the stuff that falls out of the collection plate and slips through the cracks in the floorboards. Got me almost three dollars . . . quite the haul, don’t you think? Anyway, I figure I must have been right under the confessional, ’cause I heard people spilling out their souls, one after the next. Ma, she talked about her drinking problem, which ain’t nothing new.”
“And which certainly ain’t no secret,” Double Tee cut in.
“Some guy who wasn’t familiar to me talked about impure thoughts, and the priest told him to say a dozen Hail Mary’s. I was gonna crawl on back out when I heard Trixiebelle’s sweet voice. She told the priest all about her ‘situation.’” Coop pronounced the last word sit-chee-aye-shon, stretching it, holding it out there like you might dangle a grimy rat by its tail.
“And said Nat wasn’t the father?”
“Yep, that’s what she said.” Coop plopped his line out again. “You eat a whole worm and I’ll tell you who did the deed. Who the father really is.”
That bit of information might be choice. Double Tee indeed ought to be able to cash in, maybe get Trixiebelle to give him some free meals from that diner. She worked weekends at the Corner Café over in Evarts.
“Okay,” Double Tee decided. He pulled in another trout. The larger and tastiest fish hung a little farther out from the shore, where it was deeper, which was why Coop was only catching the bluegills that swum closer in; cane poles had limitations. Double Tee slid the trout on the stringer, laid down his pole, and fished around in the can, searching for a small worm. If he had to eat a whole one for the gossip, he’d make it as little of one as possible.
But the worms were all big. Bigger than the ones they’d already used. Where in the blue blazes did Coop find king-sized nightcrawlers? He’d never seen any like this!
“I’ll do another half,” Double Tee said. “And you have to eat the rest of it on account of I got a secret too.”
Coop didn’t hesitate. “Deal.”
The smallest nightcrawler Double Tee pulled out measured a foot. It was as thick as a stalk of asparagus, but it ripped in half easy enough. The pieces twirled, all agitated. Coop reached over and took a chunk.
Double Tee popped his piece in and nearly gagged on it, the way it was gyrating so, like it was railing against being devoured. He had to chew it to get it down. It was kind of like gnawing on an angry gummy worm, but the inside of it was more squishy and liquidy than a gummy worm. He felt the dirt it had eaten nest on his tongue, and he managed up some spit to wash that down, wishing he would’ve thought to bring a bottle of water. He could drink out of the lake, but that notion bothered him. Fish peed there. Double Tee saw that Coop didn’t have as much trouble swallowing his piece, but he was about six inches taller, had a thick neck, and was probably trying to seem unbothered about the matter.
“Tasted like a red wiggler,” Double Tee said. In fact, it did. He was somewhat used to eating worms and other things to pull secrets from Coop. “Nightcrawlers taste like wet cardboard. This had a little more flavor.”
“I told you they’re red wigglers.” Coop pulled a big pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint out of his back pocket, counted the strips—seven—and selected a piece. After a moment’s hesitation, he gave Double Tee a stick too. “Got ’em from where I always get my wigglers, around the spring by Hattie’s shack. The worms are close to the surface out there. I can dig ’em up with my fingers. Ground was really wet when I got ’em out last night. The place stunk, too, reeked like an old man’s fart. Hattie saw me out behind her shack, came at me with a big flashlight and a frying pan and shooed me off. But I’d managed to get me a can full o’ red wigglers first.”
“Let’s go over there tomorrow night and get more,” Double Tee said. “Can’t go tonight ’cause I got a Little League game, and Ma won’t let me miss it.” Coop was one year too old to play in the Little League juniors. “I got some empty cans, and we can take Putter. Hattie’s afraid of dogs so she’ll leave us alone—if’n she’s even home from all her churching and such. We can sell ’em across the lake by the docks, put ’em in sandwich bags and charge by the dozen.” Double Tee knew money would be his ticket out of his nameless dinkburg.
He’d already secretly saved up nearly three hundred dollars, and only a little of that had come by doing honest chores. This would be honest work, though—for the most part, after you deducted the tad bit of trespassing on Hattie’s property, and the theft considering that they were her worms. A little work gathering these giant-sized red wigglers and he could double his monetary stash before summer. Coop was slow, and wouldn’t notice if the cash wasn’t exactly split fifty-fifty. With luck, they could turn this into a business that could run all tourist season, and that would let Double Tee spread out that State Farm road atlas and pick where he wanted to live.
Coop rubbed at his chin. “Don’t you want to know who knocked up Trixiebelle? And you said I’d get a secret too. Where’s my secret? C’mon, Double Tee. Give.”
“You first,” Double Tee said. “You have to tell first.” He pictured himself going over to Trixiebelle’s trailer, banging on the door, and getting her to cough up money so he wouldn’t tattle to her dad who the real father was. Big nightcrawlers and Trixiebelle’s secret . . . Double Tee would be rolling in the dough. “Who put the bun in Trixiebelle’s oven?”
Coop cocked his head.
“Who got her pregnant, Coop?”
The older boy stirred the dirt in the can with his fingers. “Eldrod.”
“Elrod?” Double Tee didn’t try to hide his shock. “You’re not kidding? Elrod?”
Coop nodded vigorously. “Gotta be true. Trixiebelle wouldn’t’ve lied to no priest, wouldn’t’ve made something up in confession. She told the priest Elrod Doddy was the father, but that she didn’t want to marry him, said she’d been with Nathaniel and would rather marry him if she had to marry someone. Nathaniel still has a job in the coal mine. ’Sides, Nat is halfway handsome. Elrod stutters and looks like someone hit his face with a shovel.”
Double Tee let out a low whistle. The population of the hollers had been cut in half in the past two years because so many of the coal mines had closed. People moved elsewhere looking for work. So he could see where catching a man like Nathaniel who was still employed would be a plus to Trixiebelle.
“Yep, Elrod Doddy.” Coop bobbed his head, the image reminding Double Tee of a pigeon.
“Ick. Sucking-on-the-old-sow-Elrod.” It was one of Double Tee’s favorite euphemisms for a dirty or ugly person. Elrod wasn’t just skanky, he was shady, too, a pariah of sorts. “How’d a pretty girl like Trixiebelle get involved with him?”
The moment he asked it, he dismissed the question. Elrod somehow always had money to spend, and the greenbacks probably lured Trixiebelle into his arms. Double Tee figured he could ask for a full third of Trixiebelle’s weekly check to keep this one quiet. He’d ask for more, but the girl’s father or Nathaniel might get suspicious of such a sharp decline in her earnings from the diner. Geeze, what would the baby look like?
“Ick,” he said again. “Double ick on a stick.”
“So . . . .” Coop looked hopeful. “What secret you gonna tell me?”
Nothing near so juicy, but it involved one of the same particulars, thereby if nothing else making it worthy of the worm piece Coop had swallowed. Double Tee cleared his throat. It itched and burned a little like he might be on the edge of catching a cold. “Elrod sold his still to Otis and Patty Sue.” Harlan County was wet, but a segment of the population favored the burn of ’shine over store-bought liquor. Maybe Elrod had spent some of the money from the still sale on Trixiebelle.
“Interesting,” Coop pronounced.
“Yeah, ain’t it? Interesting indeed.”
The two boys fished for another hour, sharing four more foot-long worms and a corresponding number of secrets, then quitting when their stringer was full.
Elrod Doddy did most of his dumping at night, harder for folks to see him then since none of the back roads were lit. Elrod didn’t want to get caught.
But he decided—just this once—to risk it this afternoon. It had taken him eight hours to drive here from Paducah. Didn’t normally take that long across the state, but Elrod had avoided the Cumberland Parkway around the cities and took some country roads here and there. He knew what he was doing was probably illegal and certainly a tad bit immoral, and so figured skullduggery would better serve his nefarious endeavors.
Besides, he needed to be in Newell, West Virginia, by midnight to snag another load. That would be another eight-hour drive if he hopped on I-77 and went straightaway after the recycling center, and a stop to grab some energy drinks at a quick mart so he could stay awake.
And he’d have to arrive in Newell with an empty truck. There was an old pottery place on the outskirts of the city that sometime back used a glaze that had uranium in it to produce a pretty yellow-gold color . . . but that was before people knew uranium wasn’t good to eat off of. They were getting rid of some of the old paint glaze, and it was cheaper to do so by availing themselves of Elrod’s dumping service.
So to make it to Newell on schedule, Elrod figured he didn’t have much choice about dumping during daylight. Besides, it being a Sunday Hattie was probably in Evarts with her old biddy friends either still listening to the service or else playing bingo in a church basement and jawing about men. If not there, she’d be driving through the county taking in the garage sales and seeing what junk she could get cheap to add to the junk she already had.
Hattie’s wasn’t the only place Elrod dumped the toxic goo, which he’d pick up from various places, mostly elsewhere in Kentucky and in West Virginia. In fact, he’d dumped at Hattie’s only twice before and probably wouldn’t again after today. No use pressing his luck. Sooner or later ol’ Hattie would see him and call the sheriff for his trespassing.
He’d made several dumps down an old air shaft at a coal mine. What with mines around here closing or cutting back their shifts, he figured no one would notice. He’d dumped along the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail too, and along the ridge near the Kentucky Coal Museum. The ridge was a good spot, but then someone had went and put up a big sign that an off-road adventure company was coming in to develop the topside area for ATVs and 4 x 4 trail riding. So he started dumping in the creek out by his still, which was why he recently sold that still to Patty Sue and her brother Otis.
Elrod knew the stuff he was dumping was bad, but he hadn’t known quite how bad until the fish in the creek died, the birds in the area started dropping, and all the pretty trillium wildflowers that grew in the area turned dark and twisty. The insects didn’t seem to mind the stuff, though. In fact, Eldrod thought they’d gotten bigger. He’d been using water from the creek in his moonshine operation, and the boiler, coils, and condenser had picked up a funny smell. The ’shine wasn’t tasting quite right either. He’d been using creek water for the mash, and on the last batch it had killed some of the yeast, and so the sugar wasn’t converting quite properly to alcohol. Elrod had figured he’d better unload the still and the land it sat on while it was marketable. He didn’t get quite as much as he’d hoped for it, but Patty Sue and Otis were his cousins, and so he didn’t mind them getting a good deal.
Hattie’s property was a fine choice for dumping because it was flatter than most patches of land around here and easy to drive across. He pulled his big stake truck onto her yard and took a gander. The old woman’s rusty Datsun was gone. Probably still churching.
Elrod swung the truck around so he was backing in, past her shack and to the weed-choked morass that was her backyard. Elrod left the truck idling and jumped out, pulled up the canvas that covered the long bed, thumbed the lift gate, and reached for the first barrel. Elrod was strong, but the barrels were almost too heavy for even him. He half-rolled it, the veins in his arms and neck standing out like cords.
He wrestled it to the spring, the liquid inside gurgling and sloshing. Elrod unscrewed the cap, tipped the barrel, and watched the sludgy yellow mixture chug into the water. It stank something fierce, worse than the previous batch from Paducah he’d unloaded here. The odor was so strong it overpowered the scents of spring, all the wildflowers and green of this place. If it didn’t rain soon, he thought, Hattie was going to notice the stink.
Elrod was supposed to just dump this stuff barrel and all, down some backwoods ravine. But Elrod was smarter than that . . . why toss out a steel drum like this when it could be taken to the recycling center on Hwy 413 and sold for scrap metal? He could make forty-two cents a pound, and seeing how each drum weighed about forty pounds empty . . . well, that came to—Elrod paused and scratched his forehead, the skin itching a little from where his fingers had touched. About sixteen, seventeen dollars a barrel. That’s what he got the previous time. Six barrels today, that’d be about a hundred dollars in his pocket, and the recycling center was practically on his way.
Maybe he should pick another county next time for dumping. Elrod tottered on the edge of worry that he might be causing some actual harm to Harlan County’s environment. He read the papers once in awhile and knew all about global warming and such. But he was just so blasted familiar with this county, born and raised here. Elrod knew every narrow dirt road, had the creeks and springs and ponds etched into his brain. If there weren’t so many trees around Cranks Lake, he could dump all the sludge there. So much water, it would dilute this stuff and no one would be the wiser. But he couldn’t get his big truck down to the lake, not without using one of the roads the fishermen and fair weather tourists drove on. Too much chance he’d get caught.
But now thinking about ponds . . . Harold Wilkins’ place butted up against Virginia. It had a big pond. Wilkins and his family would be going to Trixiebelle’s wedding next weekend. Elrod hadn’t been invited, even though he’d been romantic with the girl more than a few times. Elrod could dump a lot that Sunday; and all of it in Wilkins’ pond since the family would be at the wedding festivities. He couldn’t help but smile at that notion.
“Wh-wh-what is that? The earth fixin’ to quake?” At the edge of the spring the ground moved. He rolled the can away and took a closer look. At first he thought gardener snakes were working their way through the mud—there’d been grass all around here last trip, but some had apparently died off. One of the wigglers broke the surface. “You’re a w-w-worm,” Eldrod said. “A b-b-big ’un.” He went back to his truck for the second barrel.
If only he had an even bigger truck, he thought, he could fit more than the six or eight fifty-five gallon drums he usually hauled in the bed. He wouldn’t have to make as many trips between the old uranium enrichment facility in Paducah and the pottery place in West Virginia, and the few other stops his boss came up with. Back and forth. Back and forth. But his boss seemed to think this was best anyway, smaller loads spread out. And Elrod didn’t mind driving; he liked it so much that when this work dried up—work always dried up—he’d be one of them long-distance truckers. He had the literature in his trailer, had picked out a nice sleeper semi-truck, apple green, that’d run about a hundred and fifty thousand new. All these sludge trips he’d been making . . . he darn near had enough saved up.
He’d emptied three more barrels before he noticed the frogs. They were the fat bullfrogs he was used to seeing around these parts, about the size of a big man’s fist, but they looked crooked, some having only one eye, some having five or six legs, one purple rather than the dark green it was supposed to be.
They looked all bloated and splotchy, like they’d given each other warts or the measles, big zits that oozed. Elrod studied the spring, which had a yellowish cast on the surface. Probably all this crap he’d been dumping in here had messed with the frogs. Good thing he wasn’t going to dump here anymore. And good thing ol’ Hattie kept folks off her property; visitors might notice the stink and the weird frogs.
Two more barrels and he was done. Elrod looked at his watch and yawned: 2 p.m. He’d stop at the recycling center, get money for these barrels and then be on his way to West Virginia. He’d have to stop somewhere after that pick up, find him a Motel 6 or splurge and go to a Super 8 that had a swimming pool. His skin was itching . . . he’d picked up some sort of rash. A dip in a pool might do him some good.
Elrod slung the canvas over the empty barrels and drove off, hoping Hattie might not notice the ruts his tires had made.
Double Tee liked to wander after the sun went down. Ma didn’t want him to, saying there were bobcats, mountain lions, black bears, and such in the woods—things that could eat him. But he’d never seen any. So he’d sneak out his bedroom window after she got involved in one of her TV programs, probably The Bachelor or Dancing with the Stars or Kitchen Nightmares. She liked the reality stuff. Fortunately reception from her antenna was good tonight; she should be occupied for a long while.
There was something special about the backwoods when the daylight ended and the stars peeped out, the sky so bright because the homes with their little lights were so far apart and thereby couldn’t compete with God’s sparklers. His uncle in Lexington said the city lights were so intense they kept the black sky and its show at bay. Double Tee figured that wherever he decided to move . . . after he raised enough money . . . it would be someplace with lots of stars. Alaska was on his list of possibilities; there had to be a lot of sparklers showing that far north, the Aurora Borealis and such. And there was money in crab fishing, or so one of his mom’s favorite TV shows indicated. Double Tee liked to fish.
The noises were better too after dark, more of them, the nightbirds calling to each other and sounding almost like that new age music that sometimes crept out of the radio when he scanned the channels. The breeze was good, setting the leaves rustling against each other; and the frogs were in full voice, chirping in a chorus that was so loud it was near hurtful. Once in awhile he heard owls and hawks and saw them silhouetted on the highest branches. And every now and then Double Tee heard a sound he couldn’t put a name too, a thing mysterious that tugged at his agitated imagination. Maybe it was a bear or an alien like in the science fiction movies he’d watch sometimes at Coop’s.
Right now he was hearing Coop tromp through the brush. Coop was never one to be quiet. Coop turned on a long-handled flashlight and aimed the beam at Double Tee, then politely pointed it down.
“Whatdya bring?” Coop asked.
“Two big pails and a milk jug I washed out. See?” Double Tee had the pails nested inside each other and was now concerned how he’d carry it all back filled with dirt and big wigglers. He might have to forgo the milk jug. “And you?”
“Got three coffee cans. Ma drinks a lot of coffee.” He jiggled a garbage bag, and the cans clanked together.
“Shhhh,” Double Tee warned. “We don’t need to rile Hattie.”
Coop whispered: “Thought you were gonna bring Putter.”
“He’s coming. Told you he’s been slowing down some.”
Double Tee took the lead even though Coop had the flashlight. The woods were tight, but there were gaps the starlight found its way through. Besides, Double Tee knew this part of the county by heart. He held the buckets and the milk jug close, realizing his effort to be quiet was futile; Coop was still clunking along.
Hattie’s front porch light was on. Double Tee thought maybe she was out visiting, but her rusty car was parked on the side. Maybe she’d gone to bed and had forgotten to turn the light off. It was oddly quiet here, no frogs chirping or nightbirds singing, no unusual-sounding thing that Double Tee could attribute to a bear or an alien. The stillness didn’t sit quite right with him, but at least he could hear the leaves shushing together in the breeze.
Putter came through the brush behind the boys, head down, sniffing, tail low.
Double Tee sniffed too. The wind carried some godawful stink right to them.
“Hattie’s outhouse maybe,” Coop said.
“Let’s see if we can get downwind of it.” Double Tee’s eyes started watering, the smell was that bad.
They skirted the little house; a light glowed from inside.
“She’s still up,” Double Tee whispered.
“Old people like her . . . shouldn’t they go to bed early?”
“Probably can’t sleep ’cause of the smell, Coop. All of her windows are open.”
Double Tee headed toward the spring at the back of her property. If he couldn’t manage to work his way around the horrid reek, he’d be quick to get the worms and get out of here. His stomach roiled, and the Moonpie and Pepsi he’d had after dinner threatened to come up.
Hattie didn’t mow her property, and so the yard was a tangle of knee-high bromegrass and wildflowers—creeping cotoneaster, lungwort, and bishop’s hat that Double Tee could see. He couldn’t smell any of it, just the overriding stink that had glued to his nostrils. The vines tugged at his feet.
Coop swept his beam toward where Hattie’s “lawn” bumped up against the woods. Her outhouse was tipped on its side. “Ugh. Double Tee, hey, maybe we shouldn’t—”
“C’mon.” Double Tee focused on the notion of selling the big wigglers to the men who fished across the way on the docks. He could endure the bad smell long enough to fill his containers. “The spring’s not that close to her outhouse.”
“I dunno, Double Tee. I’m not feeling so good.”
“C’mon, Coop. Every tub has to sit on its own bottom. If you can’t handle this . . . if you’re gonna lizard out on me, then—”
“Just hurry. If’n we don’t hurry, I’m gonna be sick.”
Putter took the lead, still sniffing, tail even lower. The dog growled softly, and that sent a shiver down’ Double Tee’s back. Maybe there were black bears in the woods and one of them had knocked over Hattie’s outhouse. He was half convinced that coming here was a bad idea, that indeed they should give up and go home. But the other half of him pictured that road atlas and Alaska, the Aurora Borealis, and the wigglers that would net good tourist dollars.
“C’mon.” Double Tee hurried after the hound.
The wind gusted stronger as the boys reached the spring.
“Stink’s not coming from the outhouse.” Coop screwed his face into a ghastly expression. “It’s coming from this spring.”
“Yeah. It is. Least the worms don’t mind the smell.” In fact, Double Tee thought the wigglers were reveling in it, dancing through the dirt. Not one of them was still. If it was paint instead of dirt, they’d be squirming away some valuable impressionistic work of art. There looked to be an awful lot of them. “Put your light here.”
Coop complied. There was a mustard-yellow cast to the ground that circled the spring, and some sort of slime lying across the surface of the water, bubbles coming up like it was soup boiling in a cauldron. The wildflowers and bromegrass had died around the edge, to nearly three feet out, all brown and shriveled like a fire had sucked the life out of them. The earth moved beneath the dead plants.
“See? The wigglers are close to the surface, just like you said, Coop. There must be hundreds and hundreds.”
Double Tee sat down his buckets and the milk jug, pulled the dead weeds away, and started scooping up worms. They were big, as long as the ones they’d fished with this morning, some longer. There were near regular-sized wigglers in the mix, but Double Tee ignored those, not wanting a worm that was less than a foot in length.
“Whallopers,” Coop pronounced them. He dropped his garbage bag, and rested the flashlight next to it, the beam spreading low across the water and highlighting the sickly-looking bubbles. He pulled out the coffee cans, took off the lids, and started filling. He made a gagging sound, and his cheeks puffed out like he was going to vomit, but the moment passed. “We ought to ask a buck a piece for these babies.”
“Oh yeah,” Double Tee said. Each time he blinked he swore he could hear the sound of a cash register going “ca-ching.” The worms were lively and some fought to stay in the earth, but Double Tee was determined, and pulled one out after the next. His palms itched, but he kept at it, filling one bucket and tamping the yellow-tinted dirt down on top to keep the worms inside. “I got forty-seven crammed in this one, Coop. Forty-seven big, juicy fishing worms that I’m gonna ask a buck a piece for. I swear one of ’em is two feet long. For that one I want two bucks.”
Coop labored beside him, crowing softly when he caught one that was the length and thickness of a corn snake.
“That ain’t a worm, Coop. That’s some sort of snake.” But it looked like a red wiggler, and the half of Double Tee’s brain that told him this was a bad idea coming here was telling him it was indeed a red wiggler and time to clear out.
“It’s a red wiggler, Double Tee. I know wigglers. I’m gonna keep this one.” Coop stuck the worm in the garbage bag, the plastic undulated and sent a shiver down Double Tee’s back.
“What are you gonna do with it?” Double Tee fought the urge to split and skittered around to the other side of the spring, finding a nice crop of foot and-a-half long wigglers there. He started stuffing the second bucket, packing them in tight.
“Maybe it’ll be a pet. You got Putter, I’ll have a big worm.” Coop scratched his head. In the light bouncing up from the spring’s surface, Double Tee saw that his friend had a rash on his fingers. Double Tee looked at his own and saw red splotches on his palms. “Oh, this isn’t good.”
“What did you say, Double Tee?”
“I said let’s finish up here and—”
Putter howled. The old hound was normally quiet, but something had spooked it. The dog threw its head back and bayed long and mournfully.
“Hattie’s gonna hear that,” Coop said.
The hound bayed again, holding a note longer than those women on the TV singing competitions.
“No,” Double Tee replied as the sound trailed off. His stomach was twisting fiercely. “Hattie ain’t going to hear anything.” He pointed.
Putter was just past the outhouse at the very edge of the trees. Coop picked up his flashlight and aimed it at the dog. A line of elms and coffeewoods stretched away, and at the base of a clump of trunks, half-hidden by the musk thistle and horseweed, was Hattie. Her frying pan and broken flashlight lay next to her.
The old woman was on her back, in her nightgown. Her mouth was agape and her eyes wide open and glossy like they were big, wet marbles sitting above her bony cheeks. She looked pasty pale, but there were red splotches on her wrists, and her fingers had curled, looking like the feet of an angry crow.
Double Tee shuffled close. Putter continued to howl.
“Think she’s dead?” Coop asked.
“She aint’ breathing. Yeah, she’s dead. Probably been dead some time.”
“Never seen a dead body before,” Coop said. He’d come up behind Double Tee. “Least not one that wasn’t all gussied up and in a coffin.”
Putter stopped howling, gave the boys a look, turned, and ran into the woods. It had been some years since Double Tee had seen the dog move so fast.
“We gotta tell somebody,” Coop said. His voice was so soft Double Tee had to concentrate to hear him. “You know, report it. Call the sheriff or something. Tell somebody about poor dead Hattie.”
Double Tee swallowed, feeling his stomach wrestling with the rest of his insides. “Can’t,” he said. “If we tell someone, they’re gonna know we were out to her place, trespassing. Ma’s gonna know I snuck out the window when she told me I had to stay home. World of trouble.”
“Think she had a heart attack? Hattie? Think she got knocked over in the outhouse and her heart or brain burst in shock?”
“Doesn’t matter how she died. Dead is dead.”
Coop shifted back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Can’t just leave her here, Double Tee. Wouldn’t be nice or proper.”
“Don’t worry. Someone will find her. Maybe not tomorrow or the day after,” Double Tee said. “But come next Sunday somebody will be out here when she doesn’t show up to church or for Trixiebelle’s wedding. Somebody will come out to check on her and they’ll find her.”
Coop shook his head. “She’s gonna be stinking by then.”
“She won’t stink any worse than her spring.”
“Maybe drinking from it killed her.”
Or maybe, Double Tee thought when he saw her nightgown move as if it had a pulse, maybe the worms did. There were wigglers moving under her bed clothes. He saw one poke its head out of the lacy bit above her breasts, inch out, and circle around her neck; it was the size of the big one Coop had stuck in his garbage bag. Another came out of her mouth, and suddenly the children’s tune about worms crawling in and out and playing pinochle came to his mind. A smaller worm oozed out of her sleeve and nested in her palm.
The Moonpie and Pepsi came up, and Double Tee spun away and wiped at his mouth. Coop was hacking up something, too.
“Let’s get out of here,” Double Tee said.
“Hell yeah,” Coop managed.
Double Tee retrieved his filled buckets and kicked the milk bottle into the spring. It floated for a moment, the sickly yellow-green bubbles popping all around it, and then it filled and started to sink.
“Grab your stuff,” Double Tee said. “We ain’t leaving any evidence that we was here.”
“How we gonna explain these worms we caught?” Coop wondered as he hustled after Double Tee.
“Don’t gotta explain nothing, Coop. I’m gonna sell mine after school tomorrow. I’m gonna get rid of the evidence I was here.” And make some money at the same time, he thought. If he earned enough, it might chase away the image of old dead Hattie.
Trixiebelle was right pretty, and Nathaniel Holt told himself he was lucky to be marrying her.
Those words hovered around his head like cobwebs he’d collected walking through a dusty old house. He’d gotten lucky with her in the backseat of his Buick Skylark.
She swore it was him, he was the father, that she’d been with no one else, and someone as pretty and pure as Trixiebelle wouldn’t have lied.
His fault that he let his passion ride on the security promised by a fifty-cent condom from the dispenser in the men’s room at the Evarts Chevron.
Should’ve bought a whole shrink-wrapped box, something with a name brand from a drug store, a better insurance policy for his ardor. Should’ve bought a box, but he didn’t because of luck. He’d thought it pure luck that she fell into his arms after their first date—several frames at Hamrick’s Bowling Center followed by dinner at the Dairy Hut. He figured he’d never have such luck again and so just the one packet would do.
Fifty cents. You get what you pay for, his momma always said.
Nathaniel rubbed at his eyes and turned on the high beams of his truck. He was heading into work hours before the sun would come up, thankfully pulling double shifts Monday and Tuesday, and maybe Wednesday too. He worked for the Justice Corporation’s Liggett operations, part of the Southern Coal Group, and they’d closed some mines. Dozens of Harlan County miners had been laid off, and he was blessed not to be one of them.
The bosses called him “a good man.”
Trixiebelle had called him that too—after he stepped up and said he’d marry her. No engagement ring, but he bought her a shiny gold band for next Sunday’s ceremony and was having it engraved with the date.
A good man maybe, but so often in his life he’d not been good enough.
His grades had been good all the way through high school, but not good enough to earn him a big scholarship to a full-fledged university. So he’d enrolled at SKCTC—Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College—and got himself an associate degree in applied science from the Harlan campus. He’d made good marks there, but still not good enough for that lucrative scholarship to cover the rest of his planned college years.
Nathaniel had wanted desperately to attend the University of Louisville and enroll in one of its bioengineering programs. Bioengineering: one of those cutting-edge fields he’d read so much about, using traditional engineering skills coupled with biology and medicine to design devices to help people live better. Nano-electro-mechanical systems, molecular engineering, biomaterials, medical imagining, and more.
His folks didn’t have the money to help him—poor, but not poor enough; his father was on disability from being injured in a mine accident, and his mother didn’t make much as a part-time church secretary. The bank had denied him a college loan.
So without that big scholarship or serious financial aid, Nathaniel had turned to the mines. And he’d been socking away as much money as possible for the past two full-time years. He’d figured one more year’s worth of savings and he’d take his run at that bioengineering program. He’d pictured himself in a cap and gown in Louisville.
Nathaniel parked in the lot and grabbed his lunch pail, put on his hardhat and locked the Skylark. He hoped the baby would be a girl, as pretty as Trixiebelle, and that she would get good enough grades to make her dreams happen. He didn’t want to raise a son like himself, a good man, but not good enough.
Nathaniel knew the land he stood on was at one time the heart of the country’s coal production. But declining reserves and climbing production costs, coupled with the competition of other resources, namely other coal basins and natural gas, had taken a toll. Too, there were the environmentalists to wrestle with. The Environmental Protection Agency under Obama had been targeting some of the mining methods, particularly the blasting and the heavy machinery that was needed to scrape away the layers of rock. The EPA didn’t like the mining companies altering the landscape. Government data projections indicated a thirty percent drop in coal production in these mountains by 2020.
Nathaniel’s baby would be in second grade then.
He checked in at the office. The buildings clustered around the shaft, the engine house, repair shop, machine shop, a few sheds, and the company store.
Nathaniel put on his gloves and hardhat and stared at the tipple-tower, the iron skeleton that covered the mouth of the main shaft. He waited for two more miners, with the builds of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, to come out of the office and join him.
“Morning, Harold, Otis. You’re here early.”
“Morning, Nat. So are you.”
They got in the cage that took them down, down, down into the belly of the mountain. Throughout the day, the same shaft would bring up the coal that they and the rest of the crew would blast or dig out of the earth’s bowels. In the yellow light the trio consulted a map, an area circled where they would be working today and where more men would be joining them when the shift properly started. Nathaniel was always early to work, wanting to make sure the bosses stayed impressed with him. Nathaniel ever tried to make sure he was valuable, able to work as a shot-firer, car-runner, timber-man, foreman, weigher, and general laborer.
Nathaniel frowned and tapped the map. First shift’s section was one of the low places, a short ceiling so he’d have to stoop for hours.
“You’re a lucky man,” Harold said. “She’s right pretty.”
“Sure is,” Otis said. “A looker that with a sideways glance can knock you clean into next Thursday.”
Nathaniel nodded and told himself one more time how lucky he was. He also told himself that he should feel jealous his friends went on so about Trixibelle. But he wasn’t bothered . . . and that bothered him.
Otis tapped him on the back. “Saw the schedule. You’re taking next Monday and Tuesday off. Not much of a honeymoon.”
Nathaniel didn’t want to lose the hours, a baby on the way. “We’ve got a party Sunday night that the café in Evarts is throwing for us and family. Then we’re driving over to Jackson County, got a two-night reservation in one of the mountain cabins. Going to see the Flat Lick Falls, swing ’round to the Daniel Boone Park, and maybe go to the wave pool nearby. There’s a pancake house supposed to serve a whack of jacks two tall men couldn’t shake hands over. And there’s some craft village over there Trixiebelle wants to see, probably pick up some decorations for the house.”
“House?” This from Harold. “You got a house?”
Nathaniel twisted the ball of his foot against the cage floor as it lumbered to a stop. He reached for the handle and opened the gate. “Lady at church died and her daughter put her trailer up for sale. Was asking twelve for it, but I got that knocked down to ten ’cause I gave cash. My folks are paying to have it moved onto their back lot. They’re gonna have it set up by Tuesday so it’ll be ready when we get back from Jackson. I’ll get me and Trixiebelle something nicer later, if work here keeps holding out.”
“She sure is right pretty,” Harold said again. “And I hear you and she will be bringing a baby into the world.”
Gossip spread quickly in Harlan County.
“That’s right,” Nathaniel said. “A new baby into this world.”
But his world was this underground maze of switching stations, belt-lines, low-hanging wires, sidings, and train cars that carried the mined coal to the scale house at the bottom of the main shaft. Nathaniel, Harold, and Otis watched as a coal car was dragged to a point between the rails at the hoisting-shaft. Near it, skips lifted weighed coal toward the surface, where it would be poured into sorting screens. The cage rumbled behind them, heading up to snag more miners for the early shift.
“’Spose we could wait for them,” Harold mused.
“Or not.” Nathaniel got on a car, and Otis and Harold slid in. It trundled them down the tunnel, the lights dimming overhead, then brightening, something sparking behind them, a turn and they got out at a black face, a coal seam they were to work. Otis was short and could stand straight, but Nathaniel and Harold had to stoop.
“Another day another dollar,” Harold said. “My wife thinks—”
A long and piercing scream came from a tunnel opposite them. Then a second scream and a third.
Nathaniel spun and ran in a crouch, scuttling like a crab and swinging his arms as if that might give him more momentum. One of his fellows hurried behind him; he didn’t look around to see which one.
A fourth scream, a rumble following, and Nathaniel gritted his teeth and coaxed more speed, hoping he didn’t trip in the tracks. A cloud billowed ahead, looking like fog in the flickering lights; he knew it would be foul to breathe. Nathaniel had been pretty good in his science studies, and he knew what sucking down too much of that stuff could do to a man’s lungs, the pictures from the textbooks popped up in the back of his mind.
Behind him an alarm sounded, which meant someone in the caved-in area had managed to get a call off. More and better help would be coming soon, proper equipment and air tanks. Nathaniel knew not to wait for it. Seconds counted. Squinting through the dusty gloom, he saw the wall that had given way, spotted gloved hands stretching out on the floor, earth and rocks covering the rest of a body.
Nathaniel dropped to his knees and started digging at the debris. Otis dropped next to him, and the two men worked frantically.
“Them’s Skip’s gloves,” Otis said. “We gotta get him out, Nat. Skip’s family.”
Nathaniel moved aside a large chunk and felt along Skip’s arm to his chest. He was pinned, but it didn’t feel too tight. “He’s breathing.” Louder: “Skip, can you hear me?”
“Anybody else trapped?” Otis shouted.
“Can’t make the words out,” Otis said.
Nathaniel searched deep inside for that spark he somehow always found when there was one more hour of work left at the end of a double-shift. He coaxed it up and focused; somehow it gave him the strength to move the heaviest of chunks off Skip. Nathaniel had been told he was as strong as any two men. He lifted a piece that must’ve weighed three hundred pounds. Otis pulled Skip free, and Nathaniel reached in farther, finding a gap. His helmet had a light, and in the beam he caught the form of another man farther back. He shimmied through the hole Skip’s body had left and crawled forward.
“Be careful!” Otis called behind him. “You watch yourself or Trixiebelle will have to find herself another man!”
Under all the dirt and coal Nathaniel could barely hear the alarm sounding, and the trundling of a car that must be coming down the tunnel sounded soft like a cat’s purr. He could hear his own ragged breath, though, and thought his heart sounded like a drum beating in his ears.
“Otis, we got three more under all this! At least three!” Nathaniel shouted, hoping Otis could hear him and alert the rescue team. There were probably more men buried.
It was hard to breath, the air hot and so filled with dust that Nathaniel imagined his lungs were filling with it, leaving not much room for the oxygen to seep in. He held his breath and crawled faster, taking off a glove when he reached the first man, feeling a wrist and searching for a pulse and thinking about bioengineering. So many miners had been hurt in the years he’d worked here, some crippled. A good bioengineer could make things to keep their limbs working. A pulse.
He stretched toward the next man, finding a pulse there, too.
But the third man . . . Nathaniel thought his own pulse stopped for a minute. He blinked and blinked, forcing his eyes to see through the gloom and pick apart the shadows that fought with the dust cloud.
That third man had something wrapped around his arm, something sucking at the flesh on the back of his hand. Another something sucking at the flesh on his face.
Deep deep deep down in the earth? In a coal mine?
Well, he wasn’t going to let no snakes suck the skin off his fellow miners. Nathaniel’s right hand shot out, his fingers closing around one of the things and ripping it away.
The thing writhed and lashed toward him, the head of it caught in the beam of his helmet light.
It wasn’t a snake.
It was a worm.
A giant-sized red wiggler.
He squeezed hard, his fingers sinking into the soft body and worm juice spilling out. The thing continued to twitch as he pulled it in two and reached for the next. Nathaniel grabbed and yanked and then started crawling backward as fast as he could manage.
There weren’t just a couple of the monstrous worms. There was a mass of undulating, heaving, whirling, horrifying worms that were eating through the mine and the miners. And more than he could count were headed right his way.
He heard his heart pounding, the sound of his coveralls rubbing against the mine floor he shimmied against, the alarm still sounding, men shouting from somewhere behind him. Otis and Harold . . . he recognized their voices, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. There was loud rush, too, strong in his ears like the wash off a fast train or something moving even faster . . . the sound of fear maybe. Nathaniel had been afraid before, not often, but recently. He was afraid of next Sunday and marrying Trixiebelle. But this was far, far worse. Maybe it was the sound of death coming.
The worms weren’t as fast as him, but there were a lot of them, all twisty and whirling. They didn’t have eyes, not that he could see, so how could they see him?
Someone grabbed his ankles and pulled. He hadn’t been ready for that and his head hit the mine floor, bounced and scraped, and he felt blood on his lip. Tasted blood and dirt and coal dust and surely terror. A heartbeat later he was out from under the rubble and in the tunnel, jumping to his feet, cracking his head on the low ceiling and not caring about that competing pain.
The tunnel was awash in eerie colors, the yellow-white of the ceiling lights strung every several feet, a white spinning light bouncing off the rocks and coming from a long-bed ATV, the company’s underground rescue vehicle. Someone was already loaded on the back, and men hunched over like turtles were putting another man on a stretcher.
“Worms.” The word came out in a push of air.
“Whatdya say, Nat?” Otis was brushing him off, took a handkerchief to his face. “What was that?”
The foreman was at the ATV. “How many men in there, Nat?”
Nathaniel held up three fingers. There might have been more, but that’s what he saw. Who knew how many were under the collapsed wall.
Nat held up two fingers, then dropped his hand. That might not be right. The worms had been on them. The worms might have killed them.
“Worms,” Nathaniel said louder. “There’s worms in there. A lot of worms.”
So many voices swirling around him, some parroting “worms” in comical disbelief. Someone mentioned “Trixiebelle.” Coal. Collapse. Dead. Ambulance coming. Those words poked through.
“Worms. I’m not kidding, Otis.” Nathaniel had backed up against the wall, out of the way, shoulders hunched so his head wouldn’t scrape the low ceiling, eyes trained down, waiting for the worms to emerge and swarm all the men here. He was ready to step on them, squash the life out of them.
Had he dreamed the buggers? Had he hit his head with such a force that his hard hat hadn’t mattered? Had he hallucinated the worms? That must have been it. Worry over the wedding, the baby, his double-wide run-down dream house, all the coal dust and his heart pounding so, and then hitting his head. A hallucination was all it was.
“You all right, Nat?” It was the foreman, Jake, a compact man with a wiry frame and an ever-present stern expression. “I want you to go up top and—”
“No sir. I mean yes sir, I’m fine, Jake. I’m working my shift. A double today.” Nathaniel looked at his hands, one gloved, one not. The skin of his right was scraped, his thumbnail broke halfway back. There was goo on his fingers, from where he’d ripped a worm in half.
It hadn’t been his imagination.
The ATV left with the injured and another replaced it, this with a crew that would clear the rubble and go in for the rest. Nathaniel heard the shift report. There were eight men back there when a wall gave way. One voice was heavy with disbelief: “The wall should have held.” Stable. No threat. Checked this area yesterday.
But collapses happened. Not often, but Nathaniel had been working a summer ago when a tunnel gave up, tired of supporting all the rocks on top of it and tired of the Harlan County miners digging and blasting at it. Two men had died.
“Worms,” Nathaniel said. “There’s worms in there, Jake. Listen—”
But the foreman Jake didn’t listen, none of them did. Nathaniel and Otis and Harold were pushed back as the rescue crew worked in earnest. Nathaniel had worked rescue crews before; he knew what they were doing to shore the area up so they could get at the bodies. All masked and gloved up to protect themselves. Might not be enough protection. He shuddered; the image of the worms wrapped around those bodies, twisting and wiggling toward him.
Three men that he’d seen; two had been breathing. Probably weren’t breathing anymore, even though only minutes had passed. The coal dust had settled deep into their lungs, like it had settled in his, just more of it; they’d been under longer. Rocks squeezed their chests. The worms had no doubt sucked the life out of them.
“They need to listen to me,” Nathaniel told Otis and Harold.
“You did real good, Nat,” Otis said, slapping him on the back as they led him out into the main tunnel. “You got the rocks off two of them. A hero. Trixiebelle will be right proud of you.”
Harold was saying something, too, but the words were lost in the sounds of men working on the rubble, the foreman shouting, the alarm still blaring, and under that the sound of the coal cars moving on the track heading toward the main shaft to be weighed and carried up.
Nathaniel went back to work, head down so he wouldn’t strike it in the low tunnel ceiling, grabbing up a pick and rubbing the worm juice off his fingers. They were just worms, big ones, and they shouldn’t be down inside a mine, should they? But worms nonetheless. Squishable, killable worms. Nothing to be afraid of. Just worms. If the rescue crew came across the suckers, they’d kill them.
Like Nathaniel thought he should have killed them, squished one after the next. A good man like him, he shouldn’t have been afraid of big red wigglers. Should’ve stayed and squished them all, not panicked and skedaddled out.
“Don’t you think, Nat?” Harold had been talking and Nathaniel had missed practically all of it.
“I don’t know what I think, Harold,” Nathaniel said. “I don’t know what I think other than that I’m marrying me a right pretty woman come Sunday and we’re going to Jackson County to sit in front of the waterfall to celebrate.”
Nathaniel stopped at the bench and grabbed up another pair of gloves. A double shift guaranteed him today and tomorrow, maybe Wednesday. He’d take as many double shifts as he could get, saving for the baby’s college fund now, not his. The rest of the crew was in place, must have come down in the cage while he was off investigating the collapse. Lots more congratulations about Trixiebelle, more questions about the too brief honeymoon he’d had planned. He gave them the answers sort of like he imagined a robot would, emotionless, just the facts. He started on the wall.
Well behind him and the crew another alarm sounded and radios crackled. Harold had one on his belt, and Nathaniel heard him thumb it and ask, “Whatsup?”
Nathaniel kept working, mind on his task, thoughts about Trixiebelle and the baby riding down his arm and into the handle, up into the pick, hitting at the wall over and over and over. There was a thin spot near where he worked, where the geologists—Nathaniel had briefly considered pursing a degree in field geology—had mapped only a lean wall of coal. But it was thicker right next to it, where he and Otis toiled, along with the men beyond them.
That thin spot . . . he saw it cracking out of the corner of his eye, a part of him saying don’t worry. This section of the mine had been checked, the rock stable, no explosions had been set here in well more than a week, nothing to make a fuss about.
“Snakes!” Otis shouted. “Goldurn snakes!” Otis spun away from his spot on the wall and brought the pick down on something near Nathaniel’s feet.
It wasn’t a snake, though it was as long and thick as those black water-snakes that hugged the banks of ponds and lakes and swallowed frogs whole. It was a huge red wiggler, three feet long, the one following it four feet. Eyeless and looking a might hellish in the yellow-white lights that glowed from the tunnel ceiling and bounced off their squishy bodies.
“Told you so,” Nathaniel said with some measure of satisfaction. “And told them so, not that Jake or anybody else would listen. Told you I saw worms.”
They spilled out like maggots would from a burst roadkill raccoon.
Harold and some of the others cut out, hollering and heading down the tunnel, some of them dropping their picks. Nathaniel grabbed up one, giving him a pick in each hand. He started stomping the worms, feeling their bodies collapse under his weight and the heavy tread of his Duluth Trading Company iron-toed boots. Otis joined in, making some whooping sound.
“I heard you talking about worms, Nat,” Otis said. “I thought you were touched. Too much coal dust.” The shorter man whooped again like he was enjoying this, smashing worms with his feet and bringing the pick down on the ones trying to get away.
Nathaniel’s two picks had a rhythm. Stomp, stomp, swing, swing. He imagined the Queen song, “We Are the Champions” playing in his head with all that heavy percussion. He set his “stomp stomp” in time to that.
“Told Jake there were worms back in that tunnel. I suppose the men working there have seen ’em by now.”
“Dutton that tear you for a duster, Nat?” Otis said. “Worms as big as water snakes. How’d you think they got down here?”
Nathaniel increased the tempo of the Queen song. Stomp, stomp, swing, swing. “Worms are everywhere, Otis. The question is, how’d they get so big?” Stomp, stomp, swing, swing.
Otis snorted and tried to match Nathaniel’s speed, but some of the worms were getting past him. They continued to pour out of the rent in the wall. Another alarm went off and the overhead lights flickered, something sparked behind them.
“Oh, Dear God Almighty!” Otis kept stomping and gestured wildly with his pick toward the rent. A worm was oozing itself out, three feet of it, four, five. Otis stomped with both feet and its guts spilled out over the tops of his boots. “They smell four kinds of horrible.”
Nathaniel agreed. There was an odd stench about them, like rotted eggs, but heavier than that. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck. The floor of the mine tunnel was a carpet of worm skin and guts.
The lights flickered, dimming, something sputtering. They went out completely and Otis howled. When the lights came back on, Nathaniel saw a worm inching its way up Otis’ coveralls. He dropped both pick axes, continued to stomp, and reached for the worm on Otis. Nathaniel pulled it free, gently, and held it up.
“They ain’t natural, Nat,” Otis said. He wrinkled his nose and motioned with his head. “We need to be getting out of here. Power going on and off. I don’t want to be down here if it goes. Let’s catch us a cage ride up—” Another worm started climbing Otis, and he brushed at it with both hands. “I’m leaving, and you’re coming with me.” He reached out and tugged firmly on Nathaniel’s arm.
“All right. All right.” Nathaniel squashed a few more, still holding onto a four-foot-long red wiggler. He backed down the tunnel, managing to pick up another one roughly the same length.
“Whatcha going to do with those?” Otis stared at him wide-eyed.
“Don’t rightly know yet,” Nathaniel answered. He paused at the bench where he’d set his lunch pail. “Can you open that for me?”
Otis’s eyes got wider still, but he did, flipped the catch and popped it open.
“You can have the sandwich and chips in there. Take the Thermos out too.”
“Nat, c’mon, let’s move.” But Otis grabbed up the food and stuffed it in his coverall pockets, snapped up his own lunch pail.
Nathaniel stuffed the two worms in his pail and closed the lid; they barely fit inside. “Now we can leave,” he said, having to talk loud over the third alarm that someone had tripped. Coal cars rattled on the main track, men jogging behind them. More men rode in ATVs and on other cars, chattering about worms and cave-ins and death, and the mine closing until this all got worked out. Organized chaos, the panic as thick as the coal dust that hung in the air.
Damn, thought Nathaniel, so much for his double-shift and socking away some extra money.
The lights flickered again as the first load of miners climbed into the cage and went toward the surface.
Nathaniel and Otis stomped more worms until it was their turn to take a cage.
“We Are the Champions,” Nathaniel sang.
Double Tee practically flew off the bus, gave Putter a quick belly scratching, grabbed his buckets of worms—he’d set boards across the top so none of the big wigglers would get out, and headed over to the docks. With each step he heard a cash register going ca-ching, ca-ching. Coop planned to join him. But Coop lived one more bus stop away, and so Double Tee could get a head start on pulling in the dough. Besides, Coop was looking a tad under the weather and so might not show at all.
There were eight fishermen where the river emptied into the lake, and he stopped there first. Normally, Double Tee would take time to appreciate everything. The smell of the water and wildflowers, the way the sunlight played across the surface making it look like gold coins floating, the breeze against his skin. He couldn’t help but notice all those things of course, this being Kentucky and all, but he didn’t take time to pull in their full measure.
“Afternoon,” Double Tee said. He vaguely recognized three of the men, locals to the county. He’d seen two of them at the Evarts Chevron station wearing blue-gray coveralls stained with car grease. The old goober with them used to own the ice cream shop over there; Double Tee felt bad he couldn’t recall the old man’s name.
“Afternoon, Tommy,” the geezer said. “You selling worms?”
“I am indeed.” Double Tee sat the buckets down.
Five of the men kept fishing. Double Tee saw that they were using hand-tied flies and so wouldn’t be interested.
“Special ones,” Double Tee added. “Extra special worms.”
He held firm on his price of a dollar a worm, netting fifty bucks—forty-seven from the worms and three for the bucket.
“Buy that other bucket off you Tommy for twenty,” the geezer said. “It’s all I got on me.”
Double Tee nearly caved, he had a soft spot for the elderly.
“Can’t,” he said. “I got overhead, the buckets here. Gotta replace them or my ma’ll probably be pissed.” Plus, he was figuring on buying a couple more buckets and going back to Hattie’s tonight—without Coop, who’d been whispering about Hattie and wondering if anyone had found her shriveled, worm-ridden body. He didn’t need Coop hovering and fretting out at Hattie’s spring, and he didn’t need the competition in selling worms at the dock.
Double Tee got another fifty from a pair of citified men in dress loafers, who’d brought their own fold-up canvas chairs and were tapping toes to Keith Urban on a portable CD player.
Back at his house there was a wagon in the carport, from when he’d been younger. Double Tee figured he could tug four buckets full of those big red wigglers on that wagon, carry another one in his free hand. Five buckets at fifty bucks a whack . . . ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching. He’d bring a little garden shovel, too, see what kind of worms he might find a little deeper.
Elrod wasn’t feeling quite right. He’d made his pick up in West Virginia on time, got eight barrels and a wedge of cash that was so thick it wouldn’t fit in his back pocket. He had to tie a shoelace around the wad and shove it up under the seat in his truck; that’s where he kept all his money, as the banks weren’t dolling out enough interest to lure him into setting up an account.
Tired, he’d pulled over in the back of a Wal-Mart lot after midnight and slept. He’d intended to treat himself to a night in a Super 8. But the Super 8 didn’t have a pool . . . or rather one that was open in the hours he was going to be there. So he saved the money and settled for swilling a couple of beers—to counteract the energy drinks he’d slugged down earlier—and having himself a parking lot siesta.
When the store opened at eight, he rushed in to use the bathroom and to wash up a bit. Then he bought a new T-shirt off the $3 sale rack, put it on right there in the store, and visited the cosmetics section where he found a sleepy-eyed clerk who recommended a cream for the rash on his hands.
The rash was burning and blistering worse than the day before, and had spread near up to his elbows. Elrod worried that he might actually have to see a doctor. It wasn’t poison ivy; it didn’t look or feel like that. And he’d already had that earlier this year, down by his ankles, and whisky and calamine lotion had taken care of it. Whisky and calamine lotion only made this rash burn worse. He’d been wrestling with headaches, too, washing aspirin down with energy drinks every four hours.
Maybe what he needed was a few days off. Stretching out in a lawn chair under a weeping willow, snoozing and boozing. Elrod would treat himself to two days of that, as he didn’t need to be back in Paducah until Thursday night. Yes indeed, he’d dump this load tonight, take the next two days off, and then get back on the road, rejuvenated.
He’d taken 33 down through Charleston, where he stopped at both a Mickey D’s and a Burger King . . . and his stomach still rumbled. He tossed the empty bags on the passenger side floor and pulled out a road map. A quick consult and he started hitting the back roads because he noticed a few state trooper cars.
Elrod had to decide soon where to dump this batch. He had a couple possibilities to mull over. Maybe Hattie’s; he really liked that her property was pretty flat, made it easier to get his truck back there. But he remembered seeing those five-legged frogs and thinking that maybe he should spread this load of goop elsewhere. And he remembered promising himself he would pick a different spot.
Maybe out by Little Shepherd Trail or toward Knobby Rock, or . . . ah! Elrod knew just the place.
Nathaniel looked over the menu. It’d been a lot of months since he’d had lunch at the Corner Café, and that had been on a Saturday. When he usually stopped by, it was for a late dinner after he’d gotten himself cleaned up following a shift at the mine. And when he worked a double he couldn’t come by at all; the café kept pretty normal hours.
Trixiebelle hovered behind the counter. She wore her long blond hair piled in loose curls on top of her head and tied with a pink satin ribbon. She had a soft spray of freckles across her cheeks and wore only a hint of makeup. The café owner didn’t want his waitresses “painted like five-dollar hookers,” he told them. Her nails were manicured and lacquered peach; the nails of her index fingers had little flower decals on them.
I am a lucky man, Nathaniel again told himself.
“I heard,” Trixiebelle said, leaning over the counter and batting her long eyelashes. Nathaniel breathed in her scent—honeysuckle. “I heard they closed a couple of the mines on the mountain. Madge’s husband said there’s been a cave-in. I was so scared. I don’t want nothing happening to you Nat-Nat.”
Nathaniel nodded and kept scanning the menu. “Three dead, five injured, the Hogarth tunnel, one of the rooms came down.” Nathaniel didn’t mention the worms because Trixiebelle was a tad squeamish. Besides, it wasn’t exactly a good topic over a meal. “I’ll have the Rueben with a side of slaw. Lemonade. Strawberry pie.”
She leaned closer, and he shared her breath. I’m a lucky man, he told himself again.
“I’m done at six,” she said. “Do you want to see a movie or something?”
“That’d be nice,” he admitted. “But I can’t.”
She even looked pretty when she frowned.
“I’m going over to Harlan, the community college. Called my old physics professor and he said I can use the lab after six. Got something I need to look at.”
Her eyebrows rose. “A laboratory? Nat-Nat, what are you—”
“Found something down in the Hogarth section I want to look at up close.”
“Nat-Nat, is Jake paying you extra to get all scientific and—”
A bell dinged. “Order’s up, Trixie.”
She turned and Nathaniel folded the menu and pushed it away, wrapped his fingers around the water glass, cool against his palm. He raised the glass and ran it against his forehead. Trixiebelle was pretty and Nathaniel should indeed count himself lucky. But all he felt in the pit of his stomach was dread.
Nathaniel drove a meandering route to the community college, going past Huff Park and the city hall, swinging around and cruising by Lou’s Kountry Kitchen, Joe Gilley Field, and the two Baptist churches. Then he went down 421, craning his neck and seeing the Harlan Sunshine Church of God, the Hamrick Bowling Center, a cemetery with tilted tombstones, and a string of fast food restaurants on the strip. Girls in shorts and tank tops clustered around teenage boys in the lot of the Long John Silver’s.
Nathaniel had just wanted some extra time to think, and instead he was thinking pretty much about nothing. He wasn’t feeling terrific, the Rueben hadn’t settled well, and he hadn’t made it through the whole piece of pie. Trixiebelle had hovered nervously, and so he left and just walked around Evarts for a while before driving over here.
He pulled into the college lot. There were still a good amount of cars, teachers judging by where they were parked; they got the spots closest to the buildings. There were some night classes running for another week, and then there’d be a break before the summer session.
Nathaniel picked up his lunch pail and put his ear to it. He couldn’t hear them moving around. It felt oddly warm, though, and he’d kept it in the shade behind the driver’s seat.
“Good to see you, Nat.” Dr. Collier greeted him at the door to the lab. Collier looked more like a farmer than a scientist, his skin dark from the sun and wrinkled like tree bark. He had been one of his favorite instructors, even though Nathaniel had only been with him for two classes. The old man—Collier was in his mid-seventies and apparently only taught for something to do—practically lived at the community college from what Nathaniel had gathered. Always working on something or reading about this or that study, guest lecturing here and there.
Nathaniel envied his passion for science.
“Listen, Doc, I hate to bother you and all—”
“No bother, Nat, always a pleasure to see you. Are you going to Louisville in the fall for—”
“No.” Harlan County’s gossip apparently hadn’t traveled this far yet. “I’m getting married Sunday, Doc. No more college in my future.”
Collier scowled and Nathaniel brushed past him and clunked the lunch pail on a counter. He should be doing this in a biology lab; it would have all the equipment he needed. But dissecting a worm wasn’t hard—junior high stuff. He could make do here. Heck, he could’ve made do in his parents’ kitchen. But this way he had Collier for company.
From notes on the blackboard, Nathaniel could see Collier had been teaching about the mathematical relationship of an object’s mass to gravity. At least some of his students had been doing something with electricity. There was a Pasco function generator, parallel plate board and wires, differential voltage probes, and a Braun electroscope. On another counter he noted D cell batteries, resistors, a capacitor, and a digital multimeter.
Nathaniel retrieved a lens kit from a shelf, a board, and a box of pins. He had a pocketknife on him, and that would work. “Look, Doc . . . uhm . . . this thing I called you about. It’s not exactly up your alley, more biology to be certain, but—”
“Let’s see it, Nat.”
Nathaniel could tell the doc was excited. He’d mentioned the worms in the mine, and that he’d caught two, wanted to check them out.
Collier opened the lunch pail. “Oh. Dear. God.”
One of the worms was dead, and the other was eating it. Nathaniel pulled the dead one loose and slammed the lid shut on the live one. “Convenient, eh? We were going to have to kill one to dissect it anyway.”
“That’s three feet long.”
“Was longer than that before part of it got ate. Good thing its brother was mawing on it from the tail up. All the stuff I want to look at is in the front part. You know, Doc, most people don’t think nothing about worms. They don’t realize how important they are, that they build tunnels and the make the soil so rich that plants thrive.”
“You need to be studying in Louisville,” Collier said.
“Yeah, well, I need to be doing a lot of things.” Nathaniel stretched the front part of the worm across the board. He held one of the lenses near it, so its pores appeared magnified. Rolling the worm so the slightly darker side was face up, he pinned it to the board, took his pocket knife, and slit it from its mouth to as far as the board went, about a foot, careful not to puncture it, just cut the skin. He didn’t want to hurt any of the organs.
“I searched on the Internet just a little while ago,” Collier said. “You had me curious. There are giant worms elsewhere in the world, Australia for example. They’re called Gippsland earthworms there, and they grow up to three feet and about an inch in diameter, purple and blue-gray. There’s a museum dedicated to them in a town called Bass; people can crawl through simulated burrows and a worm stomach. They’re considered protected, the farmers are killing them when they till. They might become extinct.”
“What? The farmers going extinct?” Nathaniel laughed at his joke. “These ain’t no Gippslands, Doc. They’re red wigglers. I’ve done enough fishing around here to recognize ’em. And like I said, there were some in the mine bigger than this. I just didn’t have anything with me larger than that lunch pail I could stuff ’em in. I left the really long ones down there.” He shuddered, trying to shake off the memory of the morning.
Nathaniel loosened the skin and folded it back, Collier looking over his shoulder. “This worm being so big, Doc, makes seeing its innards pretty easy.” He pointed to a light colored organ just inside its mouth, then to five darker colored loops wrapped around the esophagus. “Them blood vessels, and its hearts, even the crop . . . they have little bumps on them.”
He took a lens and held it close to get a better look and angled it so Collier could see. Sweat dripped off Nathaniel’s face and his hand fingers trembled. “There’s its gizzard, those white things its reproductive organs. They look misshapen, swollen maybe, they’re not right. Ventral nerve cord.” He was talking to himself, well knew that Collier was so far beyond dissecting worms. “There’s the buccal mass, uh . . . cerebral ganglia, pharynx, pharyngeal muscles, third nephridium, anterior lobe, uh . . . esophageal pouch, median lobe, blood vessel—”
Nathaniel paused and gripped the edge of the counter, feeling a little dizzy.
“Those red bumps,” Collier said. “They’re like the rash on your hand.”
Nathaniel straightened. “Got the rash from handling the worms, Doc. I took off my glove down in the tunnel and—”
“Are you nauseous?”
“A little, but I think that Reuben—”
“No, a little dizzy, though—”
Collier stepped back and held a hand out. “Stay there. Don’t move.”
Nathaniel returned to looking at the worm, holding another lens up to it with one hand, and using the other to probe it with the tip of his pocket knife and slit open the stomach. He couldn’t tell for certain what it had eaten other than dirt and some flakes of coal. The inside of its crop was inflamed. He turned when he heard a hiss followed by click-click-click.
Collier aimed a handheld device that emitted a harsh-sounding electronic clacking.
“That’s a Geiger counter,” Nathaniel said.
“You’re suffering from radiation poisoning, Nat.” Collier aimed the device at the worm and the noise grew louder, the numbers on the dial increasing. “The worm is highly contaminated.” He swung the device toward the lunch pail and it crackled louder still. “Sit down, Nat. Over there.”
Collier sat the Geiger counter next to the opened worm, and went to his desk at the back of the room, rummaged in a drawer, and pulled out a directory. He fanned through it quickly, lips working but no sound coming out.
Nathaniel felt his chest grow tight with worry. Radiation. The worms were contaminated. He was contaminated. The mine . . . all the miners. He’d have to call Jake and . . . oh God, Trixiebelle. He’d kissed her before he left the café. What about the baby?
Collier was on the phone, and Nathaniel listened, his heart racing, the rash on his hand itching. Twenty-two years old, and there was a good chance he wasn’t going to be seeing twenty-three.
Collier was talking to someone at the Center for Disease Control, keeping his voice low; Nathaniel couldn’t pick up much of the conversation . . . just a smattering that only increased his worries. Next, Collier called Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, then the Harlan County Sheriff’s Department, followed by the Appalachian Regional Healthcare Hospital. Collier was talking louder now, clearly irritated. Nathaniel caught most of it.
“He’s a miner . . . no, he’s an adult. He’s a coal miner . . . there have been several exposures.” Collier muttered something under his breath. “I don’t know what kind of radiation. What? Yes. I called them, and they were more helpful than you. Yes, please, send an ambulance. Put the EMTs in suits to be safe.” Collier straightened and hung up the phone. He crossed his arms and looked at Nathaniel. “You’re going to be fine. The exposure is probably minimal. Everyone is touched by some radioactivity every day.”
Nathaniel didn’t feel fine, and the worry exacerbated matters.
“We’ll get you to the hospital. They’ll check to make sure you’ve no renal damage, probably give you an infusion of sodium bicarbonate, monitor you.” Collier put on his kind face, but Nathaniel noticed the furrowed brow. “Some people from the CDC are coming tomorrow, probably on their way now, and from the National Laboratory. The sheriff is going to close the main road to the mine . . . just in case. Everything will be fine. Just fine.”
Nathaniel glanced at the Geiger counter and thought that if it could detect bullshit, it would be clacking up a storm.
Rain was coming. Elrod smelled it in the air before he’d popped open the first barrel . . . after that all he could smell was the thick yellow sludge, which carried the scent of spoiled eggs and rotten cabbage. And he could see the rain hanging poised in the sky, all overcast with big fluffy gray clouds hiding all but a sliver of the moon, and tiny threads of lightning dancing. The type of night for werewolves, Elrod thought, remembering a schlocky movie he’d seen at the Mountain View Drive-In over by Stanton. The werewolf feature was doubled up with something about strippers at the end of the world. The Macy twins had been scared by all the special effects makeup and eerie music; they’d cuddled up to him nice and close.
Elrod bunched his muscles and tipped the drum, hearing the chugging and feeling the liquid slosh around. The stench intensified and he held his breath as long as he could. Good thing the mines were all closed for a couple of days, which was why he cut across a narrow trail to get to this airshaft; he’d dumped down it once before. There’d be time for the stink to dissipate before the miners went back to work. With luck, no one would notice the goo. And if someone did? Well, the news said there’d been some sort of wall collapse off the main tunnel a couple of miles away. Someone would figure that the cave-in was responsible for releasing some icky stream of mustard yellowness.
The barrel was easier to tip the more sludge poured out. He upended it to let the last little bit dribble down. He held it there for a while, just to be sure. The recycling center didn’t want the barrels if they weren’t empty. He rolled the barrel toward his truck and tapped the lid back on, set it to the side while he got the second one. Then he went into his cab and reached behind the seat for his little transistor radio. Needed some music to help pass the time.
This sludge was thicker than the previous batch, took a lot longer to drain. He turned the radio on and worked the dial back and forth, pulled up the antenna and pointing it one way and then another. Should’ve got him a new radio when he was in that Wal-Mart. He’d thought about it. He had lots of money. There! Something finally came in, an oldies station. Elrod preferred country music, the new popular stuff with electric guitars and a catchy beat. Sonny and Cher droned: “I Got You Babe.” It would have to do.
Elrod went back to work on the barrel, worried the lid loose and tipped it, listened to the music mixing with the gurgle-glug-glug, tapped his foot in time with nothing, and scowled when the first drop of rain hit his nose. It was a big fat drop, and it was joined by others, plop-plop-plop against the steel and the rocks at his feet.
He didn’t have an umbrella, and so he was going to be soaked. He wasn’t about to ride it out and wait for the rain to stop. Grumbling, he tipped the barrel up higher as the level of sludge lowered, tipped it more and felt the crap surge into the hole, a little splashing up on his shoes and the rolled up cuffs of his jeans. Maybe the rain was good after all, wash this gunk off him.
By the time he’d drained the fourth barrel the rain came angry, rat-a-tat-tatting against the steel drums and the ground and him, his ball cap so utterly soaked that the brim sagged. Elrod took off the cap and winged it like a Frisbee, though it didn’t travel far. It was hard to see, the sky so dark, the moon not really showing now, just a light spot in one of the clouds overhead to hint where the moon hung. Lord, but this stuff stank, and the rain wasn’t cutting the wickedness of it one bit. Elrod swore he could taste the mustard-yellow concoction. He swallowed hard and held his head back, letting the rain rat-a-tat-tat against his tongue as the barrel continued to glug-glug-glug.
He had quite a time wrestling the seventh off the lift gate. He stopped and bent over, rash-covered hands on his knees. He thought he should be wearing gloves for this, but his hands itched worse when he put gloves on. The rain struck his back and he felt the ground tremble from thunder. The folks in the hollers will be happy, he thought, all their little gardens hadn’t been fairing too well, as dry as the spring had been. A few more deep breaths and he went back at it, half-rolling, half-walking the barrel toward the hole, prying off the lid, tipping it.
Then Elrod lost his balance.
The rocks around the air shaft opening were slick from the rain and the goo, and his boots slid across them. Elrod flapped his arms like an ungainly crow trying to take flight. He slipped right past the barrel and into the shaft, bouncing against the rocky sides of it on his way down. The sides were wet with the yellow goo, and Elrod got it smeared on his clothes and face, swallowed some of it and felt it burn his throat like he’d just eaten a lit cigarette. He tried to get purchase, fingers grabbing everywhere and finding nothing but sludge-coated rocks he couldn’t latch onto.
Fear built in his belly as he continued caroming down into darkness. The shaft cut at a sideways angle now like a sliding board, but it wasn’t smooth like one. Elrod couldn’t remember ever feeling this much pain, battered by the rocks he skidded against, hitting the back of his head more times than he could count, his fingers feeling like fire . . . and then feeling like nothing. Elrod couldn’t feel his fingers or hands, and he was losing sensation in his arms, too. His feet were lead weights that kept pulling him down.
How deep was this airshaft?
Elrod had heard some of the miners in town talk about being down three hundred, four hundred feet. If this tunnel went down that far, how would he get back out? He’d have to wait until the mines reopened. Dear God, they would reopen, wouldn’t they? Wait until the lights got turned on and the miners went to work, found him . . . ’cause he thought his legs were broken and so he wouldn’t be able to walk out on his own. He supposed he could crawl.
He’d apologize, of course, for dumping the sludge. ’Cause when they found Elrod, no doubt they’d find some trace of the mustard-yellow stuff; maybe find his truck, too, and the empty barrels. They’d catch him for doing an illegal dump. But he’d only be caught for this one dump, he wouldn’t fess up to anything else. In fact—
Elrod hit the mine floor hard, more of his bones breaking and the air rushing from his lungs. It was blackest-black here, he couldn’t even see shadows. Maybe his eyes had broken too, and he was blind. His tongue brushed against his shattered teeth, tasting blood and more of the stuff he’d dumped. He tried to push himself up, but nothing cooperated. At least he could still breathe, his lungs working. His chest ached, though, and he guessed he’d landed on his stomach. He registered that his face was against the stone. It felt like maybe his cheek was smashed.
Not good, not good, he thought.
He should’ve rode out the rain in his truck, waited to dump until things weren’t so slick. He’d gotten himself in quite the pickle, and he didn’t have any health insurance. Elrod had plenty of money—which he’d been intending to spend on that semi-truck. Should be more than enough to cover the hospital bill . . . once somebody found him and hauled his broken self out of here.
Geeze, he hoped he wouldn’t have to crawl.
Elrod found something else that worked—his ears. There was a drip-drip-drip, maybe more of the sludge coming off the walls of the airshaft, maybe rainwater. There was something else, a slorp-slorp-slorp, sounding halfway like a pig eating, but not that loud. In fact, it was more like a whisper, a suggestion of noise. He was pretty certain the hairs were rising on the back of his neck, which must be at an odd angle judging how the side of his face was against the rocky floor.
Slorp. Slorp. Slorp.
He felt something slide across his face, a snake maybe, though he couldn’t imagine there were snakes this far underground. It felt slick, and it wiggled.
Slorp. Slorp. Slorp.
A second something joined it, having the size but not the heft of a snake. Definitely alive. The things seemed to gather themselves, then extend, becoming thinner as they moved. Odd, but not unpleasant.
One of them teased his lips, the sensation tickling. Then it slid into his mouth and over his tongue, went past all his shattered teeth and down his throat.
It was cutting off his air and he couldn’t do anything about it. Elrod tried to scream, tried to bite down, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. He swore he could feel it fill his belly, where it writhed like it was all happy it had ventured in there.
And then another one decided to join it.
Elrod didn’t feel pain anymore.
Double Tee stared at an empty seat on the bus. Coop must be real sick to miss a day of school, especially since this was the last week before it let out for the summer. The bus rumbled down Old US 421, Martins Fork Cumberland River on the right. Double Tee hadn’t been feeling well himself either, clumps of hair coming out, his stomach constantly growling. Nothing seemed to fill him up, and nothing sat well. Still, he wasn’t that sick, and he’d rather not stay home today. Monday was his mother’s day off, and if he stayed home, she’d be fussing and fidgeting over him.
And he didn’t want her keeping him in, because after school he was going to lug more buckets of worms over to the dock to sell. Though a little piece of him was starting to feel sorry for the worms, that they’d die of drowning or being eaten by fish. It wasn’t like him to be all sympathetic or maudlin. He’d bought all the buckets the Hillside Handy-Mart had yesterday—four two-gallon plastic ones with nice, strong handles and lids—and filled them up at Hattie’s last night. The wagon he’d tugged them back in had trouble making it through the mud because it started raining so hard, and pulling it up the hill had been darn onerous. But he was persistent.
The worms had been even bigger and livelier, some so big he didn’t even try to grab them.
He hadn’t seen Hattie’s body, but her nightdress was there, and her bedroom slippers. Some critter must have eaten her. Maybe a bear or an alien. More likely the worms, he thought, since one had latched on pretty good to his thumb and took a bite. Sooner or later someone would realize something untoward had happened to old Hattie. Until then, Double Tee would keep making trips to that stinky spring and culling the most attractive looking fishing worms . . . and probably feeling a might sorry for condemning them to death.
He scratched at the rash on his fingers as he watched freckle-faced Petey Wilson snake a hand up over the seat to tug on Sarah Anne’s braids. Petey lived so far back in the woods they had to pipe in sunshine. He had no manners. Sarah Anne pulled a face, turned around, and batted at Petey. Then the pudgy, green-eyed girl gave a high-pitched scream and was pitched forward.
Double Tee was flying forward too, whacking himself against the seat in front of him, dropping the books that he’d been balancing in his lap. The other kids were getting tossed around too. The bus driver had slammed on the breaks.
“Tarnation!” the driver shouted. The woman who could have passed herself off as a NFL linebacker flapped her arms. “Varmits!”
Double Tee rushed forward so he could see, Petey right behind him. Other kids were standing up on their seats, trying to get a look out of the bus’s front window.
“Worms,” Double Tee said. “Really really really big red wigglers.”
The blacktop was slick with rain that had carried on through the night and into the early morning, and so the worms contrasted nicely with it.
“Tarnation!” the driver repeated. Her hands gripped the steering wheel so hard the knuckles were white. Double Tee thought she looked like death eating a cracker, turning so pale. “Worms? Worms!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Double Tee said. “They’s worms.” He pushed open the door and went out on the blacktop.
“Don’t you be going out there,” the driver said.
The doors thumped closed, but opened again. Petey went out too, followed by a half-dozen more kids.
“Tarnation,” the driver muttered.
The worms lay straight across the blacktop, all at different angles looking like Pick-up Sticks that God had dropped on Old US 421, daring someone to play with him. They were all bigger than what Double Tee had spotted last night at Hattie’s. He put most of them at between seven and eight feet long, thick as a fireman’s hose. One stretched all the way across both lanes, each end disappearing in the bromegrass.
Double Tee let out a low whistle. “A might odd, don’t you think, Petey? These worms?”
Petey padded forward, an incredulous look on his face.
More children crowded around. Sarah Anne was a bit bolder than the rest, she walked right out in the middle of them, hopping over them, and then waving to the driver when she was in front of the bus. Sarah Anne twirled, her polka dot dress a dizzying blur of blue and green. She reached in her pocket, took out her cell phone, and started taking pictures.
“Tarnation!” the driver shut off the engine, squeezed out from behind the wheel, and tromped out onto the blacktop. “Lord Almighty.”
Double Tee thought the bus driver needed some schooling herself so she could increase her vocabulary. He tentatively crossed over one worm and the next, hearing a thrumming sound coming from them, like they were talking. He thought he could understand them too. He thought they were saying: Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Double Tee wondered what it would like to be a worm, tunneling, crawling . . . a big worm like these, too big to be fish bait. It might be fun.
He stared at them, admiring the colors.
“Double Tee!” Sarah Anne waved him over.
“Take my picture, Double Tee.” She shoved the cell phone at him and smoothed at her dress. “Get these worms in the picture too. Get a picture of me holding one.”
“Tarnation. All of you, get back on the bus right—”
“Petey!” Sarah Anne hollered in the most high-pitched wail Double Tee had ever heard.
He’d just snapped a picture of her. He whirled and saw one of the wrigglers twisting its way up Petey. The bus driver was trying to pull the worm off. Double Tee snapped some more pictures. All the worms were getting agitated, sliding toward the children.
Sarah Anne wailed again and Double Tee spun back. A worm had slithered up her back and was wrapping itself around her neck, making slorp-slorp-slorp noises. Double Tee stuck the cell phone in his pocket and hurdled two worms that stretched between him and Sarah Anne.
“Get it off me!” she wailed.
“Trying,” Double Tee said. He pulled with both hands, digging his fingers in at the same time. The worms were as big around as Sarah Anne’s legs, but they were pretty lightweight. He tugged one free, getting goo all over his fingers because he’d squeezed so hard he’d punctured it.
“Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!” she screeched. “Get it off me!”
“I thought you wanted a picture of you holding one. Well . . . you got one!” Double Tee shouted.
“Please get it off me!” Another was winding up her leg, and Double Tee pulled that one off too. “Ewwwwwwwwwww!”
Double Tee soon had his own problems, two worms were inching themselves up his legs.
Slorp-slorp-slorp. It felt like one was trying to gum him through the thin fabric of his old jeans. It thrummed: I am hungry.
“Tarnation.” From the bus driver. “Tarnation. Tarnation.”
Sarah Anne wailed again and started stomping. Worm goo splattered up all over her pretty dress. “Ewwwwwwwwwwww!” She paused. “Double Tee . . . Double Tee get a picture of me killing one of these things.”
Double Tee ignored her and pried his own worms loose, accidentally puncturing another one and getting goo all over his arms. He really didn’t want to hurt them, in fact was starting to feel real bad for selling the smaller ones for fish bait. Around him the other boys were attacking the worms by stomping, punching, and ripping. The worms writhed, some trying to get away. But the boys were faster than the worms, and it looked like the boys were well enjoying the massacre.
“Tarnation! Stay on the bus!”
Double Tee saw that the kids who’d initially hung back on the bus were coming out now, yelling and cheering and stomping. Old Highway 421 was a blur of scampering, malicious children, flailing red wigglers, and splattering guts. In short order there were so many squished giant worms that the goo obscured the blacktop. Double Tee got plenty of pictures on Sarah Anne’s cell phone, but he wasn’t happy about it. He felt very sorry for the worms. A tear slid down his face.
“Get back on the bus!”
No more worms in sight to kill, the children obliged her. But this time, Double Tee sat in one of the front seats, eyes trained to the sides of the road, heart pounding in excitement, praying any worms would stay off the road and stay safe. The worms even made slorping sounds as the bus slowly drove over their carcasses.
The air was filled with chatter. Everyone seemed to be talking at the same time, all the words swarming together. Double Tee picked out some of it.
“How’d they get so big?
“Where’d they come from?”
Hattie’s spring, Double Tee thought in answer to that one.
“Think there’s more of ’em?”
Probably, Double Tee thought. Most definitely. I hope so.
“Think there’s others even bigger?”
The air was filled with something awful, too. The children who’d been spattered stunk of rotten eggs.
“I don’t get paid enough for this,” the driver muttered.
Double Tee saw a few more of the monstrous worms before the bus pulled up to the school. One of the worms must have been ten feet long.
Nathaniel hadn’t slept in the hospital, his stomach spinning with worry—not for himself, the doctors had declared him only residually contaminated. They’d given him lots of fluids, an IV drip, and took samples of his pee every two hours. Some specialist said it was uranium exposure.
Uranium. Maybe depleted uranium.
A kindly nurse loaned him her iPad, so he searched scientific sites for information, starting with “Uranium,” “Kentucky,” and “Mutations.” There was a gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment facility on the western part of the state, near Paducah, nothing in the east. So he couldn’t figure out how any significant quantity of uranium was here . . . unless in their blasting for coal they’d loosed some.
As for mutations relating to uranium . . . as Nathaniel knew that’s what had happened to the red wigglers, mutating . . . he had trouble wrapping his mind around all the data. Such mutations would only be viable if it occurred in the eggs or sperms of the parents, and worms didn’t quite operate that way. He supposed the mutation could have been localized to cells in the worms’ bodies. Most such mutations would be lethal, but in the case of the wigglers apparently viable. The uranium probably became bound to the worms’ DNA, the cells mutating and triggering protein replication errors.
He read articles about Chernobyl, where earthworms and other insects had gotten larger. Some children were born without arms and legs. Handling the worms hadn’t seriously contaminated him, meaning it might have been depleted uranium the wigglers in the mine had been exposed to. He found a document posted by the World Nuclear Association that said depleted uranium, like most radionuclides, is not a known carcinogen and is not known to cause birth defects. He let out a breath of relief. But it had been linked to mutations. Now, if he’d swallowed a worm . . . that would be another matter.
Worms feasting on people? Nathaniel had seen worms sucking on the miners in the collapse. He Googled red wigglers, learning they could eat their body weight in organic material a day, and that they were productive breeders, laying an egg capsule every week, with each capsule yielding three or four worms. It only took three months for those baby worms to start breeding. They had no lungs, but Nathaniel knew that; they breathed through their skin . . . which needed to be kept moist, but not too wet or they’d drown. That’s why worms came to the surface after a big storm, so they wouldn’t drown.
It had stormed a lot last night, so the worms had probably come up, if not on the surface, near the surface. That’d be good. They could be smashed easier.
Collier came in. “They said they’re releasing you within the hour, Nat. A team from the CDC is here, going down in the mine and—”
“The Hogarth section.”
“From what I understand, yes.” Collier tossed a newspaper on the bed. USA NOW, the headline read: WURMS in Kentucky. The “U” looked like it had been cut and pasted off a periodic table to symbolize uranium. “The National Laboratory people should be here shortly. Supposedly some men from the National Guard are here, more on the way. I thought I’d go on out to one of the sites and—”
“I want to go too, Doc.” Nathaniel swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Can you take me back to the college so I can get my car? I’ll need to arrange for a few things. I think I know how to bring all the worms up so we can deal with them. We have to bring them up, can’t let them keep multiplying in the ground, mutating further, moving to other counties.”
Collier’s eyebrows rose. “You’ve got a plan?”
“Well, I’ve read a lot of articles about bioengineering. I’ve got a notion for something that just might work, Doc. I’ll have to get some portable generators, and you’ll have to get you a pair of rubber-soled boots if you want to be in on it.”
“Of course I want to be in on it. The college canceled all classes today.”
“Because of them worms I’d brought in to your lab?”
“Nat, you should be going to Louisville, you know.”
“Yeah, Doc, I should be doing a lot of things.”
Just north of Evarts, at the Black Mountain Off Road Adventure Park, a tourist paused to take in the view. He’d come to Harlan County on a vacation from his New York City banking job, intending to give his shiny new ATV a serious workout. He’d read the brochures; this was supposed to be the best spot in the country for off-roading. He’d not been disappointed.
He reached behind him for his pack, where he kept a couple of bottles of apple juice. Instead of the canvas, his fingers brushed something damp, smooth and with ridges. He spun and saw a monstrous-sized worm. It eased itself all the way onto the back of the ATV, all ten or twelve feet of it, slid across the pack and wrapped itself around his waist.
His mouth dropped open and he hollered, grabbed at it and tried to pull it loose. His fingers pressed into its body and yellow-green ooze spilled out. It stank—worse than the length of sidewalk in front of the park on First Street, Busker’s Latrine they called it—and bile rose in his throat.
Success! He tugged it free and shoved it to the ground, watched as it slunk behind some rocks. He started his ATV and heard a sickening whirring sound. Worms had wrapped themselves in the wheels, and when he revved the motor goo sprayed in all directions from his new, no-longer-shiny ride. He gunned it, but it barely moved, the worms getting caught in the workings.
He cursed and got off the ATV, started pulling the corpses loose with one hand while reaching for his cell phone with the other. He thumbed the phone open.
No reception. Too remote.
He cursed again and worked with both hands now. More worms eased out from behind rocks and up through patches of dirt still damp from the rain.
“Moses on a moped!” he hollered, arms moving faster and faster, breath catching in his throat.
Slorp. Slorp. Slorp.
One had attached itself to his neck. He didn’t know they had mouths. Well, he supposed that they did, but he’d never seen a mouth on the regular-sized worms that edged out on the sidewalks from Central Park.
Slorp. Slorp. Slorp.
So many worms.
There’d be no return trip to New York City.
At the Pine Mountain Settlement School, a National Historic Landmark in the county, the worms chewed through the floorboards, ruining a Baptist ministers’ retreat. The National Guard arrived before God called up any members of his flock.
Along the Little Shepherd Trail, thirty-eight miles of scenic hiking and biking pleasure, two young women met an untimely end when they jogged into a clump of wigglers.
As far away as Cumberland, at the Sleepy Hollow Golf Course, sheriff’s deputies shot a full dozen worms that menaced a quartet of senior citizens. One of the feisty seniors hopped on his golf cart and went looking for more, swinging a nine-iron and making a whooping sound.
At the Kingdom Come State Park a camper shot video of worms gorging themselves on a bear cub. The cub had tried to flee by climbing a tree, but the worms inched up right after it.
The National Guard patrolled the streets of Harlan, which had pretty much turned into a ghost town. There was a van on Central in front of the Coal Miners Memorial, big letters on the side: WLEX-TV.
“They’re here from Lexington already?” Nathaniel said.
Collier pointed to his left down Main Street where there were two more vans: WLKY out of Louisville, and WWBT, an NBC affiliate from Richmond, Virginia. “Probably more of them driving around. Play this right, Nat, and you could be on national TV. Tell them how you brought the first big wiggler to my lab.”
Nathaniel frowned and drove past the WLEX crew, where a striking woman in a forest green suit held a microphone up to Lou of Lou’s Kountry Kitchen. He turned into the hardware store lot, opened the car door and looked at the ground, just to make sure there weren’t any worms, and then dashed inside. A half hour later they were back on the street, pulling a generator he’d made arrangements to borrow. The hardware store owner made him buy the hitch, however, for towing it. He’d bought a metal rod, hoe, and a big pair of hedge clippers, too, all of which he tossed in the back seat.
“I called Otis when I was still in the hospital,” Nathaniel said. “A few days ago he bought a generator for his still, said he needed something to keep the temperature even during the distilling. Otis isn’t the sort make a wood fire work right for him. Anyway, he’s going to set his generator up out between the office and the tipple tower of the main shaft if he can get around those CDC folks and the newspaper people. We’ll take the backside.”
“You really don’t want your mug in the news, do you?”
“No siree, Doc. I don’t care to see or hear myself on display. The way I talk, folks’ll think I was born in a barn.”
Collier shook his head. “And if your plan works, we’ll let the National Guard know and—”
“Yeah. Bet they have access to a lot more generators.”
“I bet they do.”
“They can set ’em up all over the county.” Nathaniel slapped the wheel. “Gotta make sure this works first, though. Don’t want to be embarrassing myself by suggesting something to the Guard or those scientist types from the CDC. I want proof.”
Collier pulled out his cell phone and waggled it. “I’ll take pictures if it works, Nat.”
“Trixiebelle’s been bugging me to buy one of those.” Nathaniel liked the idea of not carrying a phone in his pocket, being inaccessible when he wanted to. “Saving my money for the baby’s college fund.”
Collier said something about Louisville, but Nathaniel turned on the radio to avoid the subject. A news segment was playing about law officers on a worm-shooting spree at a golf course.
They drove past the main road that led to the Justice Corporation’s Liggett mine where Nathaniel worked. There was a news van parked off the county highway and two station wagons that had radio call signals plastered on their sides. The gravel road that led right up to the mine had been barricaded, and white SUVs and men in white hazmat suits moved around between the main shaft elevator and the office.
“Otis might not get up close,” Nathaniel said. “Them official people might not let him back there.”
Collier craned his neck as Nathaniel kept going. “If your plan works, Nat, I’ll make sure Otis can get back there. Or us.”
“Better him get his mug on the TV than me,” Nathaniel said.
The news program continued, reporting about worms menacing cyclists on the Little Shepherd Trail and about an angler fatality along the shores of Martins Fork Lake.
“Doc, there’s some places where the slope’s not so bad and I can get my Buick in up against the base of the mountain. If I had me one of them ATVs I could get wherever I want. But I figure the worms can’t come up through rock anyway. We gotta find us a big patch of dirt. If we can’t, we’ll head over to that trail or the lake, and see what worms we can call up there. I’d just rather not go where there’s any news people. Gotta make sure this’ll work.”
“You won’t look stupid to anyone, Nat. You’re a million miles removed from dumb.” Collier checked the charge on his cell phone.
Two miles later Nathaniel swung around and backed onto what looked like a suggestion of a road, so overgrown there was only a hint of where vehicles used it. There was a drop off on either side, and he had to be careful not to end up down in a ditch. The Buick would need a tow truck to get out.
“Service road,” he said. “I’ve had to come out here a few times and clear rocks away from an airshaft.”
“You know the mines around here well,” Collier observed.
“And if work holds out, Doc, I’ll know the mines around here for the rest of my sorry life.” Nathaniel didn’t bother hiding the disappointment in his voice. “But Trixiebelle is right pretty, and I’m a lucky man to be marrying her. Oh, crap.”
Collier twisted around to look over the seat. “What?”
Nathaniel stuck his head out the window and looked behind them. “This strip’s real narrow, Doc, and Elrod Doddy’s big stack truck is backed in there, blocking us. Wait here. I’m gonna get him to move it.” He switched off the Buick to conserve gas and walked to the truck. The stench hit him before he noticed all the barrels around the lift gate.
“What the blue blazes?” Nathaniel looked around, seeing no sign of Elrod. It had rained a lot here, mud showing through stunted bromegrass, but he saw tracks of where Elrod had rolled the barrels around . . . right up to the airshaft. “What the bloody blue blazes? He sure gormed up this place.” He shouted for Elrod and got no answer, glanced in the truck cab to make sure he wasn’t sleeping. “What are you doing out here, Elrod? These barrels? This stink? What the hell you up to?”
Collier got out of the car and came back for a look. “Oh. Dear. God.” He pointed at the barrels and cupped his hand over his mouth, pulled out his cell phone and called someone.
Nathaniel opened the driver’s side door and saw a dozen fast food bags crumpled on the passenger side, errant fries lying around, empty energy drink cans and empty beer cans, keys on the floor mat by the gas pedal. “Hey, Doc. Take my Buick back onto the road, okay? Be careful to keep it straight. Don’t need to be stuck in no ditch. I’m gonna pull Elrod’s truck out so we can get the generator in close.”
Nathaniel reached for the dropped keys and stopped. Something was sitting halfway under the driver’s seat, halfway out onto the mat. It looked like a roll of money. He reached for it; it was money, tied with an old shoelace.
“Sweet Mary.” He reached under the seat and found another and another, stretched his fingers up and found more. Under the passenger seat, too. Seventeen all totaled, big big big wads of money. He let out a whistle and heard Collier starting the Buick. “What’s Elrod doing with all this money?”
Nathaniel was a good man, folks told him so. But he’d never been good enough. Certainly not good enough to leave this money here.
Thinking fast, he stretched over and grabbed a couple of the fast food bags, uncrumpled them, and dumped the used packets of ketchup out. He stuffed all the money inside. It took five of the sacks to hold it all. He whistled again, jumped in, and coaxed the stack truck to life, pulling it down toward the road proper and then onto the shoulder, switching it off. His heart pounded in his chest, so loud he swore he could hear it and worried that Collier might hear it to.
He grabbed the sacks, so filled he had trouble carrying them in one trip, hopped out, ran to the Buick, and thumped his elbow on the trunk. “Pop it open, Doc.” Then he stuffed the bags in behind the spare tire and under a blanket and slammed the trunk shut. Collier slid over into the passenger seat and Nathaniel backed the car in as far as he could, careful not to take it and the generator into a ditch.
“Who’s Elrod Doddy?” Collier asked. “And do you realize what those barrels are . . . were . . . filled with?”
Nathaniel shrugged. “Elrod’s a piece of work, Doc.”
“Well, Mr. Doddy’s been dumping toxic waste, probably the source of the uranium.” He waggled the cell phone again. “The CDC will be out here.”
Nathaniel hit the steering wheel so hard he stung the palm of his hand. “Geeze, Doc, I want to make sure this works first.”
Collier laughed. “It’ll take them a while to find this place, Nat.”
Minutes later Nathaniel had the generator going. He had a hard time keeping his mind on his project, his thoughts kept drifting to the rolls of money in the Buick’s trunk. Still, he had to give this a try, if nothing else for the people of Harlan County. He thrust the metal rod into the earth, thankful for the rain; it went in easy. It sent an electric charge into the ground, and he felt a faint tingle come up through his boots.
“Get that camera ready, Doc.” He retrieved the hoe and hedge clippers, walked back toward the generator and waited.
It took ten minutes for the first worm to show up. Nathaniel waited until it had inched all five feet of itself out of the ground before beheading it with one strong swing of the hoe. He’d slain close to three dozen within a half hour. Collier had taken enough pictures and had called the CDC to make sure they were indeed on their way to this spot, giving them directions. Then he joined in the killing, using the hedge clippers to cut through the wigglers.
“Uranium, toxic waste,” Collier began. Snip. Snip. Snip. “Usually it kills creatures.”
“Usually,” Nathaniel said. “But I read about Chernobyl. The worms got bigger there. Wonder if the Russians kept quiet on just how big.”
By the time an SUV full of CDC people in hazmat suits showed up, Nathaniel and Collier had killed about a hundred red wigglers.
“Electricity,” Nathaniel told them, as he wiped the sweat off his face. Worm killing was hard work. “Electricity is the key. Shock ’em into coming up where they can be done in quite proper. Can’t leave ’em in the ground to multiply. Gotta take ’em all out.”
He hooked the generator back onto the Buick. “I figure we got y’all’s permission to set this up between the mine office and the tipple tower. Unless Otis is already there.”
A man in a hazmat suit said Otis and his generator had been turned away.
“I can’t call Otis and ask him to come back,” Nathaniel said, “’cause I ain’t got a cell phone. Then when we’re done by the tipple tower, me and Doc’ll take it down by Martins Fork Lake and some other places if we have time before dark.” Collier offered Nathaniel his cell phone. “I can’t call Otis,” he repeated. “I can’t find out where he’s buzzing the wigglers. He ain’t got a cell phone either.”
The CDC people started making arrangements for the National Guard to bring in as many generators as possible.
Collier was nodding off in the passenger’s side by the time Nathaniel pulled into the college parking lot. The sun had set and the first hint of twilight was showing itself.
“Long day, Doc.”
“Yes, it was. But a very productive one. So many wigglers down by Martins Fork.”
“Them CDC people are planning to stay through the end of the week. According to the radio, the lab guys are finding places all over the county where uranium had been dumped.”
“Probably all by Mr. Doddy.” Collier got out of the car and leaned his head in the window. “No doubt he’s a half-dozen counties away from here, avoiding the authorities. Wonder why he abandoned his truck?”
Nathaniel shrugged. “Hey, maybe the worms got him.”
“Maybe they did.” Collier patted the car. “Nat, you should be going to Louisville, you know.”
“Indeed I’m going to do that, Doc. Figure I’ll see if I can get in for the fall semester. Probably too late to get hooked up for the summer session, but maybe I’ll get lucky and get into a couple of classes. I bought me and Trixiebelle a trailer. I’m figuring to have it moved to some mobile home park over there, something not too far from the campus. If she wants to work after the baby comes, I’m sure she can find a nice café. She’s a great waitress.”
“You’ll do well,” Collier said. “You’re a good man.”
But not good enough, Nathaniel thought, to not run off with Elrod’s stash of cash. “You come to my wedding Sunday, you hear, Doc. Resurrection Catholic over in Lynch. One o’clock.”
“I’ll be there.”
Elrod still couldn’t see anything, but his other senses worked just fine. He could smell—blood mostly, but dirt and coal, too. He could taste, the mustard-yellow sludge that he’d dumped was strongest. It settled pleasantly in his gizzard, and he wanted more.
He could feel, too. Vibrations ran through the earth like a kitten’s purr, skittered down the length of him like Trixiebelle’s caress. Everything was much more intense and amazing. Electrical current had buzzed through the rocks above him, but thankfully it hadn’t reached this far down.
He was safe.
Elrod knew he’d changed, that he didn’t have arms or legs anymore, and that he’d slunk out of his clothes while exploring his rocky surroundings. He didn’t have lungs, either, but he breathed . . . through his skin.
He had kin all around him—twisting, dancing, feasting, exploring wigglers. He slid up against one, relishing the sensation of rubbing skins. Elrod experimented, tentatively gathering himself and stretching, pulling himself along the stone, passing over dirt and through more of the sludge, which he paused at so he could gobble down. Slorp. Slorp. Slorp. That sludge was mighty tasty.
Then he slipped forward again, no longer tentative. He rode up over a discarded work glove, farther and he slid across the handle of a dropped pick ax. He nibbled at coal shards along the way, figuring he could probably eat most anything.
Eldrod discovered he had a voice, which sounded like a gentle thrumming. He varied the pulse of it, and was rewarded with his kin answering.
Come with me, he thrummed. Go West, young worms. Go West.
There was a place near Paducah where more of the mustard-yellow sludge could be found. He’d picked up everything from the place in West Virginia. But over by Paducah . . . ah, that would be fine to dine on.
Go West, he thrummed again.
West. West. West, came the answer from a hundred of his fellows.
Time to leave Harlan County. He felt the vibrations above and from elsewhere in the mine. Men were still sending electricity into the earth, trying to deal with his kin. He’d keep them deep. Harlan County was not safe.
Paducah, he thrummed.
Paducah, Paducah, Paducah, they answered.
There was plenty of depleted uranium left to gorge themselves silly on over there, to help them grow bigger and more powerful. People and farm animals to eat along the way. And when that uranium was gone, there would be other places. The vibrations in the earth would lead the way to nuclear reactors. And his keen sense of smell would point him where others might have illegally dumped the tasty sludge.
Paducah, Paducah, Paducah, the worms continued to thrum.
They were halfway across the state by the time Double Tee and Coop slithered up and joined them. The young worms were anxious to explore the world, Double Tee thrumming about Alaska and Elrod discouraging him because of the cold.
Paducah, Paducah, Paducah.
Paducah, Double Tee finally agreed.
Elrod and his kin would crawl in and out over by Paducah.
Then they’d play pinochle on the snout of the world.