I found a new vein. I think it runs deep. I imagine it running from the black jagged wall all the way to the core. The pickaxe sank into something soft and red pulp burst out. I checked over my shoulder three times before I pocketed a wet clump to take home to Mary. Ten years and some buried part of me is still moved by the texture, how it reflects the glimmer of the lantern, the congealed malleable batter that fills the folds in your hand.
Bob barks his orders from where the light gets in until a new discovery is announced and he scurries in. He makes notes for head office and focuses our combined efforts to where the newest batch is unearthed. Each glob I bring home, the worry builds and simmers. Mary says I’ve been talking in my sleep. In that brief window of rest where my thoughts give up I murmur about Gary. Slow Gary who tried to trade it at the company store and hasn’t been seen since. We’ve been careful, the secret nest egg in the faded plastic cooler, nestled in the shed.
I was a kid when the world first knew; the reports on Dad’s old TV. Men and women in garish suits speaking into microphones at the first site. A long artery discovered by accident at an African mine. At first they thought they’d unearthed a body. They were calling it source material. It would revolutionise medicine. It would bind to the host just like the real thing. Prosthetic limbs could be made real, or close enough. This was before the military and big tech started buying, then the prices skyrocketed. This was before the mine here opened up and transformed the town. They built the company store, the church, the hospital, the school, the rows of identical homes. Now it all serves the mine.
We separate it by skin tone. Bob marks the discoveries in a form. The cooler is full of caucasian. Clumps that bind together, congealing squelching dollops added over the years. Mary wants to move away, so my wages go into the company store and stay there. She wants a child. We’ve been trying. I haven’t reported the new vein yet. The cooler’s almost full, and if we can get it out it’s a three bed house near the sea and a good school. It’s an early retirement and shoes that don’t let the water in. Mary’s brother thinks he can find us a buyer. They correspond in invisible ink, and Mary flirts with the postmaster just in case.
I came home to find the house empty. I heard the wind rattling the shed door against the fence and knew Mary was out there again. I found her peering in from the splintered door frame. Her back to the world, her head tilted in her usual mesmerised state, like she’s watching the new born that the cooler will pay for.
“How was it today, darling?” Her voice buoyant on a daydream.
“Same old, same old.” I kissed her cheek. “Mind out.”
I threw the newest clump into the cooler.
She had her torch aimed at the moist cluster.
“That one can furnish the baby’s room.” She said. Her sleepy smile never left the little pool of light, the red plastic with its throbbing contents suspended in the dark.
“Harry’s in talks with a buyer. It’s hush hush, but we’re nearly there aren’t we, darling?”
“Nearly there.” I said, pulling up my waistband. I lowered my voice in case Larry had his windows open.
“I’ve found a new vein. I think it runs deep. If we wait a little longer it could be a four-bed. Maybe more.”
She pulled herself away from the cooler for the first time and gasped.
“A four-bed.” She said.
She led me by the hand and we tried some more.
Mary’s brother is an engineer. He designs and builds android units. His company only buys through official channels and usually in bulk. I joined Bob on a trip to the factory once. There had been a shipment error – the refrigerators had taken damage in transit and the source material festered on its long journey. There are protocols and environmental sanctions. It binds together and rots, creates a solid rind. There are horror stories of arteries forming and jolts of sudden movement, most likely the work of whack jobs or foreign competitors with their synthetic equivalent. Bob and I were treated to a tour that still haunts me. Images that linger like retina burn. The one that stays is the ‘skin bath.’ They heat the source material until it forms a liquid. Then the animatronics line up to submerge themselves one by one. It binds to the skeletal structure and forms a clumsy layer of flesh. Featureless faces climb out of the steaming vats. Then they are filed down into human shapes, the mouth is carved, the eyes are inserted.
If a worker falls in, it’s the kind of death you feel. The liquid muscle fills every crevice like expanding foam. It reaches around the eyes and fills the sockets. It climbs through the nostrils and throat and stuffs the lungs. The first time it happened it made the news – now numbers crawl along the bottom of the screen. We’ve all seen the footage. They climb out looking too … thick. The deformed creatures stagger a few feet, they claw at their new misshapen faces and collapse.
We were gathered at the yawning mouth of the mine. Leaning on our shovels and pickaxes. Blackened overalls cracking in the morning heat. Bob told us to wait. I watched the door to head office, waiting for Bob to emerge so I could get back to chipping away the pieces and seeing how many bedrooms we’d have.
“What do you think they’re talking about in there?”
Larry wiped the sweat from his face before shrugging.
“Better than working ain’t it?”
I watched the waiting black gap in ground and decorated the baby’s room until Bob emerged.
“Alright, lads. I’ve had a word with head office. We’re changing direction. It’s been slim pickings the last few days, so we’re starting a new drift. We’re digging from the last substantial haul on the east face.”
The arduous day burned slowly. Digging and aching and smeared in black. A gruelling process, and the only thing lining my pockets was sweat. After dinner I told Mary why I was empty handed. She looked away from her treasured heap, disappointment thinly veiled behind a weak smile. We decided I would go back that night. With the company shovels and pickaxes behind lock and key, I took our best knife and the rusted hammer from the shed.
Over the next few weeks I barely slept. I’d come home from the day shift to eat with Mary and wait until nightfall. I snuck past the houses under a vast web of stars. Steadying my lantern to prevent the constant clatter and clank it threatened with each step. I never lit it until I was deep in the mine. I felt my way through by the coarse contours of the rock face. I’d finally ignite the small flame when I felt the soft throbbing of the source material. I cracked the hard black edges away. I brushed off the sediment in the wavering puddle of orange light. I took more than I ever had. I’d pause and snuff the lantern at the slightest sound. Errant clicks and bumps echoing through the cavernous black labyrinth. The sweat would cool as I held my breath and readied the hammer. On the third night I brought a second bucket.
I was carrying the haul back, creeping past the church that seemed to echo the shimmering wail of the crickets. The handles were biting so deep into my fingers they were numb. The strain of the swaying mass radiated all the way to my neck. I was picking out a car for myself and a dress for Mary when I heard the rumble approaching. Before I could so much as turn, the headlights had drawn my incriminating shadow before me, the buckets scorched into the pavement.
Larry and Betsy looked at me from the car.
A blare of wind filled the silence while Larry eyed the buckets.
“Oh. Hi guys. Where’ve you been?”
Betsy leaned over Larry, her grinning head bobbed and jerked as if at sea.
“We were just at the bar!” She held a finger to her lips. “Shhhh.”
“We’re heading home now, you want a lift?”
“Ah, I’m OK, it’s not far now.”
Larry looked up from the buckets. “I insist.”
“Yeah, Parker. We insist!”
Betsy turned in her seat to talk to me.
“What’s with the buckets, Parker?”
Larry’s eyes leered at me from the rearview mirror.
“Oh. These? The water’s bust. I just had to go fetch some from the well. I was happy to wait until morning but Mary wanted a bath and … you know Mary.”
“That’s funny,” she said. “Ours has been fine hasn’t it, hun?”
“Fine,” he said.
“You should’ve come to us! Saved you walking all that way.”
“We didn’t want to bother you,” I said. “It’s late.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, that’s what neighbours are for! Isn’t he silly?”
The eyes in the mirror squinted.
The headlights illuminated the house and Betsy unclipped her seatbelt.
“You go ahead, sweetie. I’ll help Parker with these buckets.”
“Don’t worry. You guys have done enough, really.”
Betsy slammed her door and shouted through the window.
“Bye Parker! Say hi to Mary for me.”
Larry turned off the engine. “I insist.”
He waited for Betsy to disappear into the house and talked through the mirror again.
“You and I both know that smell.”
I opened my mouth.
“And we both know that sure as hell isn’t water in those buckets.”
“Larry it’s not what-”
He slammed his door behind him and approached mine. He grabbed the handle on the bucket.
“Is this why Mary’s always out there?”
“No! It’s just-”
“The fridge should be just fine though, right?”
He carried the bucket into the house and closed the door behind him.
We couldn’t close the cooler. I steadied the lid while Mary sat on it. The slurping mass filled the gap and threatened to ooze out. Half the fridge was now densely packed with the squirming heap. Its singular odour invading our every meal. Everything tasted like beef now. Mary struggled to close the fridge door, slamming it a third time she said, “we’re working our way towards a little mansion aren’t we, darling?”
I picked at the stiff river of soot that filled a wrinkle in my hand and basked in her smile.
“We sure are, Mary. We sure are.”
The next day we were making progress with the drift in the east face when Bob singled me out.
“Parker, can you come with me a second?”
I tried to stifle the sudden tremble that made my fingers waver. I tried to stop holding my breath. Larry cast a sharp look over his shoulder.
“Of course, Bob. Everything alright?”
“Just follow me.”
Every step I thought he would turn towards the abandoned drift, the one that lead to my secret. The future nestled in the brittle darkness. As we approached the turning, he pivoted towards the natural light and led us to the surface. I feared he was taking me wherever Slow Gary had ended up. My heart sank as he walked to the double doors of head office. The towering block that obstructed the sun. His cold candour was reserved only for me, he breezily greeted the receptionist and made small talk with men in suits I’d never seen. I was led to a sanitised room with a round table. Elderly men and women all gathered at one side, the oldest at the central seat, his veiny hand gestured to the empty chair.
“Ah, Mister Parker. Thank you for joining us, please take a seat.”
Bob loomed next to me, clasping his clipboard.
“We were hoping you might be able to explain something for us.”
The old man slid a map of the mine towards me, its tangled arteries marked in excessive detail. My secret circled in red ink.
“Do you recognise the circled area, Mister Parker?”
The map juddered in my hands. The gallery of eyes watched it flutter as I placed it on the table. I directed my response to a crease in his tie.
“Yes. We were digging here a few weeks back. When was it now, Bob?”
I looked up for an answer, hoping for some form of familiarity or guilt by association. He looked straight ahead like we’d never met and bobbed on his toes.
“The timing isn’t all that important, Mister Parker. Now, is there anything you think we should be aware of regarding this particular drift? Anything unusual?”
I gulped and heard the shudder undermine my words.
“Nothing that I’m aware of.”
“This was your jurisdiction, was it not? Your responsibility?”
The other suits burned holes into me, their laced fingers resting on the glass.
“This was where I was assigned … for a few days.”
Pens scribbled furiously on paper. The stenographer tucked in the corner hammered on keys until she caught up with the small exchange.
“Well, Mister Parker, we’ve called you here today as there’s been a discrepancy. One that will cost the board.”
“Look, I … ”
“It is fortunate that is all it will cost.” He waited, he toyed with his prey.
“It could well have cost human life.”
I felt Bob looking down at me with his righteous smirk, watching the bead of cold sweat trickle down my neck.
“Excuse me, sir? What is it you think I’ve done?”
“It collapsed, Mister Parker! Your drift collapsed. Last night. Had we still been mining this drift there is no knowing how many could have been hurt or worse. Did you follow procedure?”
My night shifts. The gradual excavation had burrowed the tunnel deeper and wider. In my frenzy I hadn’t added any supports. Inch by inch I’d hollowed the earth away.
“If you had followed procedure, Mister Parker, this would be an unprecedented incident. Our system has not once failed. This mine has a reputation and with good reason. No collapses. Not one. Until now. Until your shoddiness. You’ve been with us …” – he rifled through papers, the stenographer stitched the silence with a flurry of taps – “ten years. Ten years without incident. Why now?”
I searched through the blurry fog of recent memory and uttered the one constant.
“My wife and I, we’ve been trying.”
“Trying?” His voice bolstered with impatience.
“For a baby, sir. We’ve been trying for a while now. We want to start a family.”
The array of eyes narrowed and rolled.
“Here,” I lied. “We’d like to start a family here, have a child and bring them to the local school, the church. This town’s been good to us and … we’re having issues. But we’re trying.”
More scribbles and typing. Bob’s smirk settled into a visible suspicion.
“I was sure I used the right supports. I’ve been here so long it’s second nature now. I can only apologise. It must be the baby. I must have been distracted.”
He scratched his pointed chin and looked out to the scurrying workers below.
“Well, Mister Parker. All I can say is you’re lucky that drift was fruitless. It’s unlikely there’s a considerable amount of source material buried there, and you’re a great deal luckier no one was hurt. Given your long commitment to this company and your unfortunate circumstances we can perhaps see to this with some leniency. Your wages will be docked, of course. We calculate the next two weeks you will be working to undo the damage to equipment. The company store can add any debt to your tab.”
“Thank you, Sir. You won’t regret this, I promise. No more mistakes from now on.”
“Good. I trust not. Now if you would please get back to your duties.”
I stood up and met Bob’s eye, immediately wishing I hadn’t. He knew I couldn’t believe my luck. He held the door open and our exit was interrupted.
“Oh, and Mister Parker? We’ll arrange a visit from the doctor for you and your wife. See if we can’t get that family of yours started.”
“He’s coming tonight, he’s coming tonight!” Mary waved the letter in my face as I walked through the door. The cracked brown ink brought out by the flame.
I batted it away like discouraging a fly and put my bag on the ground.
“The buyer! I got a letter from Harry and he’s got us a buyer, he’s coming tonight. He’s going to take the lot.”
I watched the flowery wallpaper in the living room, knowing Larry was only a few inches the other side. I lowered my voice.
“The lot? Does he know how much there is now? Half the damn fridge? I don’t know, Mary,”
I saw the board surround me again. “It might not be a good time.”
She slapped the letter with the back of her hand and craned her glaring eyes closer to mine.
“A good time? Really? The damn mine collapsed, we ain’t getting any more unless you boys strike gold again. It’s time. For all we know I’m arguing for two right now.”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Well, when? How’s he going to get all that mess out with no one seeing?”
“I don’t know, Harry gave him our address and he’ll be here later. He’s got his own vats and scales and we don’t have to worry about a thing. Oh, we could be gone tomorrow.”
Mary had been packing bags. She was speaking a mile a minute and cradling her stomach. I was in the shower when I noticed the car-shaped smudge through the frosted glass. I rushed out and quickly dressed, the clothes clinging to the damp. I rushed down to meet the buyer. The one who would swap our lives for something bigger. I found Mary boiling something on the stove. Bob was at the table.
“Oh, there you are. Bob came over for a chat. I said he could join us for dinner.”
Bob nursed my last beer. “In’t she the sweetest?”
“The sweetest,” I said.
“I just wanted to check in, make sure you’re not too sore about that slap on the wrist.”
“About that. Bob, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened. Thanks for having my back in there.”
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Sometimes those drifts go deeper than you think.”
Mary turned around from the stove.
“Slap on the wrist?” If eyes could scream.
“Oh, great. Now I’ve got you in trouble with your old lady. Sorry, Parker. It’s nothing, Mary. Really. Just a little reprimand. But everyone knows your husband’s a hard worker.”
His face dropped and turned to me. “I bet you’d work right through the night if you could. Wouldn’t you, Parker?”
He watched the hope die in my eyes as he finished the bottle. The pot simmered.
He waved the empty in the air and slammed it on the table.
“Mind if I grab another?”
“No!” Mary said. “No, no you sit down, Bob. Slaving away in those mines all day, I don’t know how you boys do it. I’ll get it.”
She stepped to the fridge like walking on broken glass.
“Afraid that’s the last one, Bob. You cleared us out,” I said.
He laughed and drummed on the table with his knuckles.
“Is that so?”
I nodded. I wore a smile you might give a salivating bear.
“Not holding out on me are we, Parker?”
The chair scraped on the tiles as he got up. He raised his brow at me as he approached the fridge in a vaudeville step. Mary’s eyes shot wildly between us before she grabbed the handle.
“What’s that sm-”
He couldn’t finish the question. It bubbled and absorbed the eyes. Mary stood over him gripping the empty pot. He didn’t scream because he couldn’t. The source material was filling the gaps between his teeth and prising them apart. He fell to his knees and gripped at his swelling throat, the thick pink mist billowing to the ceiling.
“What the hell did you do that for?” I screamed as Bob rattled on the floor. He gripped his face as it gradually disappeared.
“Oh, he knew. He knew!” Mary pushed the tips of her fingers into her eyes and tried to block the tears. “We were done for.”
Bob’s arms swam across the tiles, he was knocking against the legs of the chairs and table. Mary wailed and ran upstairs while I watched his arching death throes.
Bob’s new bulky head was still hissing as I dragged him to the shed. I tried to pull him from the collar poking out from the flesh. The teeth of the zipper protruded through like grass through soil. I watched the infinite row of windows overlooking the back garden. All lit up, curtains open. I slipped on the anchored weight of Bob and fell backwards into the wet turf. The source material splattered onto my hand and started to swell. It filled the gaps between my fingers and joined them together. I bit my other hand to stifle the searing pain. By the time I had the courage to look back, I didn’t recognise my hand. A stodgy, grotesque mitten had taken its place. Careful to not touch it to anything else, I got up and grabbed Bob’s collar with my good hand. Then the doorbell rang. Its chimes merrily filled the house and shattered the brittle air.
I abandoned Bob in the middle of the garden and hissed up the stairs.
“Mary. Mary, he’s here. Can you give me a second to …” – I chose my words – “deal with Bob?”
She didn’t respond. I opened the door with my good hand and hid the other behind it.
The man stood there wasn’t what I had expected. A plump, short figure in a suit from the past. The kind of moustache you’d buy for Halloween. He shook a bag in front of me, and its hidden instruments rattled.
“You must be the-”
“The doctor, yes. Doctor Fleischer. I’m here to see Mister and Mrs Parker?”
Mary thundered down the stairs and straightened her dress.
“The doctor, yes. Please come in.”
He wiped his feet and made polite calculated steps inside. I hid my hand behind my back as I closed the door.
“I hope you can forgive my brashness, I’m afraid I’ve got quite a few rounds to make today. The board said you were hoping to start a family?”
The breeze swayed the open door behind him. Bob was half illuminated by the kitchen lights. I could see his work boots pointing to the sky.
“Yes. Mary why don’t you go first, you can talk upstairs while I-”
“Oh yes.” Mary snapped to attention.
“I’ll need to do some tests on both of you,” he said.
“He was just tidying out the shed. You’re nearly done now aren’t you, dear?”
“Not long now.”
Mary led him away and I got back to Bob. It was harder with one hand. His boots carved trails all the way to the shed that might as well have lit up and announced the body. I struggled to haul him over the threshold, guiding the limp weight through the thicket of tools. I left Bob strewn amongst the obstacles. He lay in the shape of a question mark. Then I noticed the square gap in the dust. The edges cut a shape so strong it almost glowed. The cooler was gone.
The buyer said he would take the lot. Had Harry told him what to expect? I locked the shed and sat at the table. Drops of the source material had formed patches on the wallpaper. They looked like sores poking through. The dripping pattern solidified and protruding. I strained to hear it all. Mary upstairs getting poked and prodded. The buyer pulling up. Bob expanding and rotting amongst the garden tools. The only thing not holding its breath was the clock.
His head poked into the kitchen. A gaunt face under a wild tangle of black hair.
“The door was open. What’s with all the cars outside? You guys having a party or something?”
“No. Just me and the Mrs.” I don’t know why I lied. “She’s upstairs, be down in a moment.”
“Shall we get started?”
He put his bag on the table and pulled out the scales and containers.
I opened the fridge and released the stench.
“Wow, it’s raw? Harry didn’t say it was raw. You guys’ll need a knew fridge after this. But I guess that won’t be a problem now, huh?”
I nodded, still exhausted from carrying Bob. Still empty from watching him die.
He emptied the fridge piece by piece. He weighed the clumps on his set of scales and shoved them into metal cylinders. Every now and then he’d release a gasp or whooping sound at the little numbers on the screen. Each time he filled a vat, he’d place more notes on the pile. It was beginning to bow.
“So you work in the labs or what?” He nodded at my new hand.
“Oh, this? Yeah. Once.”
I tried to look at the pile the way Mary looked at the cooler. To see the baby gurgling in its crib. Mary with a wardrobe full of new frocks. Me smoking a pipe and drinking scotch with the neighbours. All I could see were the shadowed contents of the shed. The empty space where the cooler should be. Bob’s messy head propped up on the mower.
“This is good stuff, Parker.” He was weighing out the last clump from the fridge and pulling more notes from his bag. The stack had collapsed. It poured over the scratched wood like a tablecloth.
“How long did it take?”
I looked up from the pile.
“How long did it take, huh? Can’t be easy to take this much without the bossman seeing, right?”
“Right.” I said. “A long time. A long time.”
He tossed the notes onto the table.
“Now where’s the rest of it?”
I felt the pit in my stomach widen and burrow.
“Harry said you guys had a cooler too, right?”
I furrowed my brows and feigned confusion.
“Oh, come on. Don’t tell me I came out here for nothing.”
I gestured to the vats that cluttered the counter.
“Its not nothing.”
“Come on, don’t hold out on me. I know there’s more.”
I sank my head in my palm and burst.
“Gone?” He left the vats and towered over me.
“Probably next door. You can take the bastard out yourself if you want.”
“I’m not getting mixed up in your problems, Parker. So this is it?” He started pacing and cradled his temple in the crook of his hand.
“I told him. I said ‘no more screw ups.’ I said ‘last chance, Harry.’ And I get this?”
He slammed his fist on the table and the money scattered.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is all we have.”
“Well you should count yourself lucky I came here at all.”
“And you’re a damn sight luckier I’m feeling generous.”
He swung the open bag under the table and started raking at the cash.
The four-bed disappeared brick by brick.
“What are you doing?”
He stopped scooping and snapped his head up.
“I said shut up.”
“Please, it’s all we have. That’s everything.”
“You don’t hold up your end of the deal, then neither do I.”
For all the time it took for the money to hide the table, it was gone in seconds.
He pointed to the handful on the table.
“That’s your lot.”
It wasn’t a four-bed. It wasn’t a one-bed. It was a full tank of petrol and a few nights at a seedy motel.
“You can’t do this,” I said.
“Oh you and your lady hardened criminals now? You gonna stop me? One word of this and I give your boss a call.”
Bob. The shed.
He slammed the door as he left. He took our retirement with him.
I sat with the notes. I struggled to light a cigarette. I considered scraping the source material off the wall. Off of Bob. Peeling it from my hand. I wondered if I had it in me to take back what Larry had stolen even with two good hands.
Then the door slammed again and Mary came downstairs.
Black streaks ran from her eyes, and her body shook as she sobbed.
The notes looked smaller in my disfigured hand.
“So what’d he say?” I said.
I know now.
I know the doctor had pawed inside and felt the lesions. How he’d said “Mrs. Parker, you do know why we don’t let women work in the mines, don’t you?”
Jake Williams was raised in Somerset and currently lives in London. He works in television and spends his evenings reading, writing or procrastinating. You can find him on Twitter: @jakewilliamspen
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