It’s snowing when it’s time to leave for the day. I sit in my truck, waiting for the heat and trying to warm my hands as the world hazes behind millions of blowing snowflakes. It’s just starting to stick, so the other fellows waste no time leaving the parking lot and getting started for home. But my truck heater needs a little coaxing to get warm, and the steering wheel is just cold enough that I decide to wait for it, so it can blow on my hands as I drive home. Phone out, I text my wife. Reception is bad out here, so it’s the easy way to communicate.
Just got off. Want me to bring home dinner?
No, I’m cooking.
What are you making?
Ah yes, chicken something. My favorite. My breath puffs out in front of me as I chuckle. She’s a great cook, but a bit like a mad scientist or an artist in her methods. She never knows what she’s going to cook until she starts doing it. Lucky for me, I’m not picky and it’s delicious and satisfying 99% percent of the time.
We don’t about that 1%, because she’s also a perfectionist, and sensitive, and feels bad when she burns dinner or adds too much salt. Or heaven forbid, makes something with kale.
Be safe, her last message says.
Always, I text back.
I pull out of the parking lot, my tires crunching on the gravel beneath my tires. Besides the foreman’s truck and one other vehicle, I’m the last to leave. I look both ways, because even when the roads aren’t bad, you gotta watch out for other drivers. Even though we’ve had three months of winter already, it’s like everyone forgets how to drive in the snow.
As I make my turn, I just happen to look over at the site. Huddled against the fence is Ms. Josephine, the snow starting to build upon her coat and hair.
When I get to the first stop light, the roads are empty and the red blinking light makes the snow look red as it blinks on and off.
No one’s coming, but I don’t move.
It’s cold, it’s snowing, and Ms. Josephine is sleeping on the sidewalk. Would I find her dead when I came in to work tomorrow? Frozen to death?
There was more cash in my wallet than I’d given her this morning. I could give it to her. It would make things a little tighter for the week, but I couldn’t imagine my wife being pissed about that. She’s the tender-hearted one. No way she’d give me crap for getting a homeless person a hotel room on a cold night.
I make a u-turn and pull up to the fence. She hasn’t moved. I put the truck in park and get out, squatting on the sidewalk in front of her.
She looks up, and I puff out a little sigh of relief that she isn’t already dead. I hadn’t been totally sure, covered in snow as she was.
I out my wallet and hand her the wad of cash. “Go get yourself someplace warm to stay for the night, will you? It’s too cold to sleep out here. I’ll call you a taxi, and they can take you to a hotel. You can wait in the truck with me if you’d like.”
“Okay,” she said, and I help her up since she looks stiff. She has to be, after sitting out in the weather all day.
I grab the bags she always has with her and toss them in the back of my truck. We get in, and she presses her hands to the heater vents as I dial the taxi company.
“They’ll be here in ten minutes,” I say as I hang up. “I’ll wait with you until they pick you up.”
As the taxi heads toward the blinking stop light, I pop my collar and walk back towards my truck. The snow is getting heavier now.
But in the deep silence of dark snowfall, I hear something. It’s the engine of the backhoe.
I walk to my truck and turn off the engine to make sure. But there it was. He hadn’t heard it before because the sound of his diesel idling had covered it up. But he’d heard that sound five days a week for years now; there was no mistaking it.
What the hell?
I walk through the opening of the fence and out behind the trailer, behind all the other parked equipment and stacked supplies. In the light of one of the portable lights, I see Travis in the backhoe, no damn hardhat on, and Biff standing there beside some guy in a suit. Behind them are two larger fellows standing there with their arms crossed.
I’m pissed about Travis not wearing his hard hat and confused as to why these guys are still at the site after hours, that I don’t notice the most important detail until it’s much too late.
He turns and looks at me, eyes wide. The suit beside him turns slower. Then Biff’s face turns red and he stomps over to me.
“What the hell are you doing here, Grady? You should have gone home.”
“I started to, but the homeless lady was out in the snow. I came back to call her a taxi—”
“You shouldn’t have come back.”
He grips my arm and turns me away from the others, but the details are starting to filter into my brain now, and my heartbeat jacks up.
There are red barrels on a pallet with a ‘toxic’ symbol on the side. There are more barrels in the pit, some of them leaking, that Travis was covering with dirt.
“Biff, what the hell is going on here?” He yanks me around again as I try to look back at the scene.
“It’s none of your concern, Grady. I want you to go home to your wife, and forget about this. It’s nothing.”
“It’s not ‘nothing’.” I yank my arm out of his grip and stab it in the direction of the pit. “You’re burying toxic waste under the condo site. What the hell, Biff?”
Dozens of families were going to live there. With children. They weren’t even burying it that deep. What would all that crap do to the soil? To the water supply? “You’re going to make all those people sick!”
“No, I’m not. It’s nothing serious—” he begins. And though I work with my hands instead of my head, I’m not an idiot.
“I know what the symbol on the side of those barrels means,” I hiss. “It means you’re illegally dumping this shit where it’s going to harm a lot of people.”
“Told you he wouldn’t go for it,” I hear Travis say from behind me. I turn to glare at him. The backhoe is off and he’s got one arm resting on the controls.
“Where the fuck is your hardhat, Travis?”
“I’m off the clock,” he mutters, looking away.
I turn back to Biff. “You’ve got to stop this, Boss. You’re making a mistake. You’ve got to call the police, or I will.”
There’s something in his eyes, something like regret. I’m getting through to him.
“You’re right.” He puts a hand on my shoulder, and pats it. “Let’s go talk to Mr. Nelson.”
We walk toward the suit, standing there in pressed clothes and shiny black shoes with a bright halo of light from the portable lamp behind him.
I put my hand up against the glare, trying to see his face.
“Mr. Nelson, Grady here thinks what we’re doing here is wrong. He thinks we should call the police.”
“You’re going to make these families ill—”
Mr. Nelson puts up a hand and snaps, and suddenly the two dark shapes come out of the dark and one grabs me, twisting my arms behind my back. Biff goes to stand closer to the suit.
My heart is beating in my throat as my shoulders ache. I see what’s happening here now.
“Biff, don’t do this. I’ll leave. I won’t say a word to anyone. I’ll forget everything.” I’m not proud of myself, but self-preservation is a strong instinct.
“I’m sorry, I already gave you that chance.” Somberly, he nods at the two meat-heads at my back, and I know what’s coming. Fuck.
My knees are kicked out from behind me, and fall into the dirt, crying out as my arms are twisted higher. My shoulders burn with pain but only for a second. The second guy steps in front of me and punches me so hard in the jaw that I fall sideways into the dirt, arms wrenched free of their hold. But they’re numbish now, and tingly, and I struggle to get them under me to lift myself up.
Blood from my mouth drips down into the soft dirt and makes little balls. Before I can get upright, there’s a hard kick to my side that lifts me up and knocks the wind out of me, and I’m laying there clutching my broken ribs with my burning arms, trying to catch my breath.
But the same kind of people who would bury toxic waste at a residential site are the same kind of people who kick you when your down. And they did, over and over, until I couldn’t feel any one individual pain. Everything hurts. I could barely breathe and ended up heaving in the dirt with a sharp kick to my stomach.
I meet Biff’s eyes for a second while they stomp my legs. I look at Travis, but he looks away.
They don’t stop. And they’re not going to until they’re good and ready, and there’s nothing I can do. I can’t even catch a breath. It’s like I’m drunk on too much tequila and all the blows are just dull thuds against my body. The pain is there, but distant.
“Maybe we should stop, boss.” Travis sounds nervous.
“Do you your bonus or not?”
The blows keep coming. They’re going to kill me. My friends. Men who I’ve worked with for years. Who I’ve been to the bar with dozens of times. Who I’ve barbecued with and met their families.
“Enough,” I hear someone say, but I’m not sure who. There’s blood in my eyes and ringing in my ears, and my body feels like it’s encased in liquid nitrogen. A burning cold. But that one word was my Hail Mary. I was going to live. And as strong as my morals were, my desire to live was stronger. To see my wife again.
“I won’t—” I cough, spitting out coppery blood into the dirt, but I know I have to get the words out to save my life. “I won’t tell… anyone.”
Someone kneels beside me, blocking the bright light. It’s Biff, because somehow I can still smell his cologne over the blood and my broken nose.
“I know you won’t, Grady.” I nod, to reinforce it. “I’m sorry, man. You should have minded your own business.”
That doesn’t sound like my Hail Mary. “Wait—” I groan.
Hands roll me over, and I’m falling for a second, until I hit hard dirt. And then dirt hits me, on the back, as I struggle to get up. I try again. But my body is weak, and the dirt is heavy, and more keeps landing on me.
When it’s too heavy for me to push up on my arms, the helpless gets to me and I cry out.
They’re burying me alive.
CONTINUE TO PT. 3 (Coming very soon)