Fiction by Matt Perez
When they used dynamite, a siren wailed from a tiny tower erected atop my heart and steam hissed from my left ear, and then a small voice—barely audible to me, and never to others without the H&K monitoring stethoscope hanging from the bathroom mirror—shouted, “Fire in the hole!” And then, ba-BOOM, my insides shook. Ribs quaked. Intestines rumbled. I got indigestion and burped coal dust for an hour. At night, when the blasts shook the bed, I’d check for Emily to see whether she was there, whether it had woken her up.
Which she was that night. And it had. Emily sat up, took a gulp of red wine from a bottle on the nightstand, adjusted her poufy ponytail, and rolled over, an angel of tolerance. It was the twenty-ninth, and she knew the miners had a quota to meet. They usually knocked off around ten, but worked straight through the night in triple shifts, end of most months. We had a tonnage contract, and Foreman Grady should have had them working a bit harder at the beginning of the month if you ask me. A lot of laughing going on sometimes. I mean, shit, they were in my chest, so I could hear the playing cards slap the barrelhead. And yet there I was, chewing cherry Tums and getting detonated bit by bit in the middle of the night again. But when you’re a coal mine, acid reflux and sleepless nights are a reality of production. Emily didn’t have much of a job other than dealing pot for her ex, so after the dynamite crew woke her up, she took that drink of wine and lay back down and pulled the blanket up to her chin.
This sounds like some real Ozzie and Harriet shit right now, but you should know I wasn’t tall, handsome, or proud enough to ever attract Emily in a meaningful way. And maybe I shouldn’t tell you I was mostly a convenience to her, or that she’d occasionally fall for someone else and disappear for weeks at a time, which kept me in orbit. I had been on the verge of a decision about us for more than a year, but like a panicked astronaut slipping beneath the waves in a red-hot space capsule, I remained too afraid to sit tight and too scared to blow the hatch. Funny thing is, I still feel pretty good about us. If what happened to Emily hadn’t happened and she walked into my life today, there’s a chance I’d slide right back into that groove. It was the only honest relationship I’d ever had with a woman who was not my mother. But I lied to both of them in the end.
I don’t know. The whole world’s fucked up, and this is our part of it: the abyss, smiles, that sort of thing. Emily and I had an alliance. Everything was broken. Our lives were happy and rich.
It’s fair to say I’m telling you about the end.
“Don’t be sorry. Those miners are pissing me off right now, though.”
“Want to try again?”
I shook my head. No, my cock was useless. Thirty minutes of drunk sex is a waste of time and sweat when you can’t keep it up. We might as well have watched Matlock. I was naked and sweaty, and the sheets were sticking to me. My chest was burning and hot to the touch. Soot coated my tongue and darkened the crevasses between by teeth.
“They’re really going for it tonight.”
“At least somebody is.”
We laughed. I took a swig, swishing the wine around my mouth, then spat into a half-full glass of water on the nightstand. Red wine, coal dust, and water swirled together, an embryonic pink sea flecked with dark stars. I swirled the glass, feeling tiny pickaxes vibrate deep within my chest.
“They’re not much bigger than that.”
Emily propped herself up on her elbows, planting the wine bottle in the bed. “It’s so weird.” She took a drink. “Don’t you ever think it’s weird?” Emily drew a circle on my chest with her finger. “I don’t know.” She pressed her ear to my sternum. “What are they doing in there?”
“Get the stethoscope. Find out.” I lit a cigarette. “But it tastes like they’re still mining anthracite.”
“Light me one.”
I tossed the pack in her lap.
“Dickhead . . .” She fished a cigarette from the pack, placed it between her lips, and stared at me, so I offered my lighter. Emily swatted the lighter out of my hand and then plucked a pack of matches from the nightstand. As she struck the first match, it flared in the night and then settled into a steady flicker. Those sharp eyes in the soft light. Those great, green, silent-film-star eyes. “You’re a funny guy,” she said. “So clever.”
Then she tossed the match in my hair, which I had been growing out, more out of laziness than fashion. A puff of flame erupted from above my shoulder, and I patted it out. An acrid smell of burnt hair mugged the room. She lit another match, and I felt a hot pinch on my chest.
“Cut the shit,” I said. “You’ll burn down the company.”
Emily got out of bed and pulled on a Pistons hoodie we had found on the front porch three nights before. It was big enough to fit a hill giant. “It’s probably pretty cool digging around inside people.” She went to the bathroom, and I listened to her pee. “There’s a coal mine in you,” she continued. “So there’s probably all sorts of places hidden away in other folks. Like opera houses, dog tracks, radio stations, zoos. Fucking zoos! I’m all about there being an old Marathon service station in me. With a big round sign with one of those red pegasuses on it.”
“You think I have a coal mine in my chest for a reason?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, why don’t I have a sausage factory or a liberal arts college?”
“You want me to make a sausage joke right now?”
I looked down. My dick was flopped to the right, snoozing like a Basset hound. “Come on, little guy,” I said. “She’s making fun of you. Show her who’s boss.”
Emily walked back in, a specter in the dark, creaking floorboards instead of rattling chains. “That motherfucker is shut down until he learns his lesson.”
“Shuttin’ it down?”
“Shutting that shit down.”
She sat on my lap and held my face in her hands. She braced her forehead against mine and looked me in the eye. “You’re goddamn right.”
The siren above my heart bleated three times. Steam whistled from my left ear.
“Here comes another one,” I said.
She giggled, pulled the hoodie up, and wrapped her arms around my shoulders. Her chest was cool and soft against my own.
“At least we’ll feel something tonight.”
And we waited, squeezing each other tight.
I was a collector of sunsets back when all this was happening. I had taken my mom’s old Nikon and tripod after she had died a year previous, and for reasons attached to loneliness and the passage of time, every evening I’d crawl out of my bedroom window—soft palms, bony knees, gritty shingles—and set up at the same spot at the apex of the roof, where I would snap a shot to the southwest. This was easy when it was not winter. On the way, I’d pass the company town, Kline’s Summit, on the windowsill, and I’d pick up Lyle for the ride and put him on my shoulder. He was Foreman Grady’s middle son, the tallest of the boys, long limbed with blond hair that sat back on his widow’s peak so it looked like he was prematurely balding. I remember him having squinty eyes, but that might be because we were always looking into the sun. I’d wait for the right moment to click the shutter while Lyle played guitar, both of us waiting for a perfect moment, even though my perfect sunset never existed and Lyle’s guitar sounded like a cricket’s mandolin because it was the size of a pinkie-nail clipping.
Lyle had big plans. He resented his parents for tying themselves to the company town and despised that he and his brothers were expected to work the mine. He played a decent guitar and wanted to start a bluegrass band with his brothers, Manny and Frank. But Frank was five years old and had more interest in his soggy thumb than the banjo, so Lyle and Manny were a guitar and fiddle two-piece for the moment. This was right after Lyle worked in the H&K mine for about two years, then quit. He was sixteen.
“Shit, man, that sum’bitch is a good one.”
He was right. A fiery line of clouds traced between the purple horizon and pink sky, with the sun burning like a cigar end between them. I clicked the shutter.
“Say, slim Jim. It ain’t cold enough yet. Let’s rest here a’piece.”
I sat, and we watched the evening settle. The birds were noisy, and then got quiet. Some kids up by the school screeched happily about something. Dogs barked. Cars paused at the end of the street and then crept across the intersection beneath the dead eyes of powered-down traffic lights. The city was busy saving money that didn’t exist.
“What do you think about the Coal Town Rounders?”
“I think every bluegrass band is called the Coal Town Rounders.”
Lyle made a “mmn-hmmn” sound that could have been confused for agreement if you didn’t know that was the sound of him biting his tongue. He spat, and a tiny brown speck landed on my thigh. Lyle had started chewing tobacco the year before, and I didn’t feel great about it, but couldn’t really see anything to do but let it ride. If you thought you could change Lyle’s mind, even at sixteen, you didn’t know him. None of this made me feel any better about the pinpricks of tobacco juice that now speckled my shirts.
“Figured you’d say that.”
“Then why’d you ask?”
“Dunno. Guess I wanted your opinion on the matter.”
Lyle started to play a little then. Us sitting on the rooftop feeling the breeze was a fine little moment while he picked around a tune—I think it was a “Shady Grove” jam. It was nice. But the world always feels like a nice place to live when you’re on a rooftop.
“I seen Emily was here this morning.”
It was my turn to make the “mmn-hmmn” noise.
“I thought you wasn’t going to do that no more.”
“You need to get free of her. Mama says she’s bad news.”
“Then why you still passing time with her?”
I shrugged. This miniature teenager did not have to mimic the feeble echoes of my failing conscience, even if he happened to be sitting on my shoulder. “That’s the kind of thing that’s easy to say but hard to do.”
“For you it is.”
“For me it is.”
Lyle went right on picking while I watched some neighborhood kids. They were keeping their distance from one another, cupping their hands over their eyes as they peeked into parked cars and checked the door handles. The littler ones sat on their bikes at each end of the block, clowning while they kept lookout.
Lyle stopped picking. “How do you talk to a girl when you like her?” he asked.
“Like her like her or just like her?”
“Don’t know yet.”
“We just determined I’m shitty at women.”
“Yeah, but folks in town is way worse. There’s but five or six single girls in the Summit, and only three of them are my age. And Eunice would set better in a saddle than a dress.”
“So you trying to talk to Hattie or May?”
“Well, shit. There’s your problem right there, bud.”
“You can’t just like the idea. You have to like the person. No one can ever be who you want them to be.” Lyle started up with the guitar again, and I kept talking, trying to be more helpful than not. “Don’t think too much on it. Lots of people say a lot of dumb shit to other people, but nobody’s listening, not that much.”
“What do girls care about, then?”
“I’m not sure. Stuff we can’t even see sometimes. Hell, who says it’s about you at all?”
“Well, shit . . .”
“Just pay attention and don’t be an asshole. But be a dick a little.”
Lyle picked for a spell, then stopped and looked to the sky, an endless plum-colored dome pierced by a falling star that held the rumor of springtime. “I’m gonna level with you, Jimmy—that there is not helpful or encouraging.”
“Just keep playing guitar,” I said. “They like that.”
And that much—exactly that much—I knew was true.
“Don’t expect anything from me and you won’t get disappointed, see?”
Emily had said that to me a week earlier, and I had just said it back to her in a shitty Al Capone accent. We were trying on hats we had raided from the Free Peoples Church donation drop-off on the way home. Sure, it’s a religious nonprofit, but there’s no reason to expect people to pass up an overflowing garbage bag of hats after three a.m. The crime, really, was the hats themselves—the kind one would wear on stage, but never on purpose. I wore a fedora angled in imitation of a Prohibition-era gangster, and I tried to play the comment off as a joke by making a cheesy six-shooter gesture.
Emily pulled the sombrero off her head, threw it into my chest like a Frisbee, and left the room, flicking me off the whole way out, all chipped nail polish and attitude. “OH! Fuck YOOOUU . . .” echoed through the hallways of my empty house. It was an old stick house with a front porch on an okay block, standing halfway between two whiskey bars where I did most of my drinking and two gas stations where I bought most of the groceries. I had bought it from the city cheap, but after that I couldn’t afford much furniture past a secondhand bed, desk, and kitchen table. The living room was outfitted with the best in previously (recently) owned patio furniture. Its crowning piece was a swinging loveseat Emily flipped over on the way out.
Naturally, I chased after her. “Where you going?”
She began to unlock the front door: two deadbolts, a chain, and a doorknob, followed by the deadbolt on the iron gate outside. “For a fucking smoke.”
“Want your shoes?”
And then we were on the porch, her walking, me chasing. Flakes of snow were blowing around under the pink glow of sodium lights, maybe falling, maybe not, but there was about two inches on the ground.
“Leave me alone.”
She was pissed, roaring down the porch stairs in a hurry, and it occurred to me I had salted the stairs, but not the sidewalk, and as I said the words “Be . . .” and “. . . careful,” Emily’s feet shot out from under her, and she nailed her tailbone on the last step. She made a surprised squeak, and then hunched over. She yelled FUCK as loudly as she could. Her hand flitted around the small of her back, like a bird afraid to land. “Fuckfuckfuckfuck . . .”
I ran to her, and she swung her hand back blindly, catching me square in the left testicle. I collapsed. My knees joined my bare feet in the snow.
“Get the fuck away from me!” she yelled.
She pushed me over, and as I flopped on my side I began laughing, warm with radiating gut pain and whiskey. “Oh. My. God. You are the fucking worst.”
Far away, the snap of a gunshot echoed, sharp and hollow in the cold. It wasn’t a great idea to be drunk on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. No one is larger than circumstance here, not anymore.
“You’re like the city,” Emily said. “A great place to be for a while, but once you move in, the neighbors suck.”
“You leave Detroit out of this.”
“It’s not Detroit, asshole. It’s a fucking metaphor.”
I felt like I should apologize for something, so we sat in the snow and shared a smoke. We asked each other if we were okay, the answer to which was clearly, No, we are not okay. After we limped back inside, Emily lay in bed to nurse her sore ass, and I brought her the usual nightcap, half a mug of ginger brandy.
By the time I got to bed, Emily was snoring and the mug was on its side, its handle broken. I cleaned up the pottery chunks. There was a big wet spot, so I sniffed the puddle to see whether it was urine. It wasn’t, and I covered the spill with the giant Pistons hoodie and settled in next to Emily, burying my face in her hair. She smelled clean and wintry, and as I passed out I felt like this was how things were supposed to be. I decided I might be in love with that monster, at least that night, at least in that bed.
I awoke in terror. Adrenaline charged my blood, and I sat up and tried to catch my breath. A thirst for oxygen. Unquenchable. I panted in broken gasps. Relax, I thought. Just a panic attack. Focus on the bottoms of your feet on the cold floorboards, watch the tongue-colored light leak through the curtains, listen to the drunken voices drift up from the alley. You’re fine.
Again, a surge of pain bloomed in my sternum. It rippled through my limbs and caught in my throat. My chest tightened. I trembled. I couldn’t catch my breath. Shallow puffs. Thin air. I hacked and coughed, but the fit took hold and did not let go. Gritty bits of coal and shale scraped up my esophagus and over my tongue, and then, with a big hack, I choked for a moment on a muddy wad of coal slag before working it up and spitting it out across the floor. As I collected myself, a black angel of hot coal dust was fuming from my mouth, raising itself up in the pink glow before me.
The mine. Something was wrong.
I lurched out of bed. The floorboards flexed and creaked as I bumbled to my mildewy bathroom. Covering my mouth to muffle my convulsions from Emily, I turned on the bathroom light and saw there was a red smear on the switch. Fear warmed my cheeks. Had Emily cut herself on the mug? I didn’t see any more blood, and her snore was purring softly behind me. Another fit of coughing erupted, and more coal caught in my throat, and a splash of blood, freckled with black soot, sprayed the tile wall. I looked at my hands—they were covered with it. I moved to the mirror. A bio-industrial sludge of blood and coal slag bubbled from the corners of my mouth and dribbled down my neck, soaking my t-shirt collar. It looked like I had gotten caught eating a baby. I reached for the tap to rinse, but in the coagulating blood and gunk stuck to my hands, among flecks of coal and slag and soot, a tiny pair of legs rested in my palm. They were cut off at the beltline, still wearing blackened work boots and faded jeans. One of the little legs was crooked at the knee, folded beneath the other, like a 4.
A tiny pair of pants, I thought, filled with something like legs.
I tried to say something but gurgled instead. My mouth was filling with blood and sludge, but I didn’t want to spit in the sink in case any more miners were bumping around my teeth. I dumped our toothbrushes out of their Oscar the Grouch cup, slid the little pair of legs over its lip, and began to drool as gently as I could.
And then my left ear canal buzzed. Steam hissed. The siren wailed. And it did not stop, not while the lights of Kline’s Summit flickered to life upon the bedroom windowsill. It did not stop when tiny dogs barked and tinier chickens clucked. It did not stop when little voices began to mingle, and then escalate into soprano shouts and screams of alarm that sang through the bedroom.
It did not stop because this was the night the mine collapsed.
The phone rang. Not my cellphone, but the neon-orange company phone mounted in the kitchen.
The sounds of the phone ringing and the siren wailing and the hissing in my ear like white noise combined to make me a little crazy, and I suspect this was when I lost hearing in my left ear, but I can’t say for sure. I was still a little drunk, and it was a traumatic situation in the middle of the night. I had no idea what was happening. So I answered the ringing phone. Because that’s what you do.
“Mr. Kline! It’s Grady. We got a cave-in down here.”
He went on to describe how they had been pushing through shaft eleven to join up with shaft three, how it was the end of the day, how there was a stratolithic anomaly that brought the roof down, taking four men with it and trapping the rest of the crew.
“Oh, God. I can’t . . . It’s bad, sir. It’s real bad. Ted Stiller . . . his legs. Oh, Lord, save us. It cut him . . . it cut him clear in half.”
Ted Stiller. He played Father Christmas at the Kline’s Summit winter carnival. “What do we do?”
“Mr. Kline,” Grady paused. I heard the sound of men shouting and Foreman Grady yelling something over the siren’s wail. Then something began beeping down there, inside of me, in my blood and coal and bones.
“There’s a gas leak somewhere,” Grady said. “We’ve got to get the fans going, load the men on the conveyor, and get them up on out of here. But there’s a whole mountain of you between us and the circuit breaker.”
Then Emily’s hand appeared on my shoulder. She was smiling, and her eyes were half-closed. She slipped past me to the kitchen sink. After that, she turned around, dropped her underwear, hopped up on the counter and hung her butt over the sink, where a righteous gush of pee sprayed from her underside. It rang off of an aluminum pot in D minor and then rained upon the remaining dishes like an angry typhoon. Sleepwalking again. You’re not supposed to wake someone up when they’re doing it. It’s dangerous or something. I grabbed my keys off the kitchen table and threw them at Emily, hitting her in the shoulder.
“Wake the fuck up!”
She blinked, frowned. “No fucking way. It’s your turn,” she replied.
“Emily!” I shouted.
She woke with a start, and in the split second it took for her to notice where she was and how delicately she was perched, Emily fell off the sink’s ledge and crashed to the floor with her underwear around her knees. “What the fuck?!” she shouted from below the tabletop’s horizon. “Don’t wake somebody up when they’re fucking sleepwalking—it’s fucking dangerous!” She stood, pulled her underwear on. “Why? So annoying . . . I keep falling down today.”
She stood, hiking up her underwear, and then looked at me. Her hand floated up to cover her mouth. “What . . . who did you eat?”
Grady was still shouting on the line. “It’s the only way we can put him back together!”
“The legs! If we find the legs we can put Ted back together again. For now we’ve sutured him to your aorta.”
“Ted’s legs! I have his legs. Where did I put the legs?”
Emily opened the refrigerator. “Eggs are in the fridge.” When she turned back around she was holding a beer in one hand and a carton of eggs in the other. She put down the eggs. “Seriously, what the fuck is going on? You look like an abortion.”
I covered the receiver and told her about the past five minutes, then returned to the conversation with Grady as Emily went upstairs to get the spitter containing Ted Stiller’s bottom half. Grady was saying we had to hurry, something about the little world inside me and the big world outside. Emily was yelling upstairs, but I couldn’t make her out. I tuned in as Grady was talking about a spark igniting the dust, blowing out the whole mine, exploding my chest from the inside out. I was minutes from looking like a Cronenberg money shot. Emily’s yelling got closer. She was stomping down the stairs. I asked her to shut up, please, that I was trying to listen.
Emily stood in the doorway, cradling a full-sized pair of legs in her arms, supporting them from beneath the crotch. They were still in jeans and boots, and when she heaved them up on the kitchen table, the open end was facing me. I looked away, but something odd drew my gaze, or more precisely the opposite of something odd—where I expected to see intestines and blood spilling from Ted Stiller’s bottom half, there was only red gelatin.
And it was panting.
“Fucking look!” Emily pointed. The old miner’s human-sized lower half. On my kitchen table. Filled with something that was not entirely human but not wholly inorganic. The legs breathed heavily, inflating and deflating. A memory of a gasping perch, pulled fresh from the lake.
“He’s a fucking gummy bear!” Emily said. She grabbed my arm, leaned in close. Her breath smelled like stale beer. “They’re gummy people!” she hissed.
“What, goddammit? We gotta get these men out of here.”
“Yeah, I know, but we have a problem.”
“Shit. What now?”
“It’s Ted’s legs.”
“They blew up?”
“Yes!” A glimmer of hope. “Well, no. I mean, they didn’t explode.”
“I was afraid of that. They still breathing?”
I asked Grady if he meant the legs, even though I knew that was what he meant. He said, yes, what the hell did I think he meant? I assured him Ted’s lower half was still breathing. He said we still had time.
“Get the emergency helmet . . .”
“I have a helmet?”
“Your wife is there?”
“She’s not my wife.”
“This is going to be a one-way trip. You should tell her.”
Emily walked back into the kitchen, rummaging through the bag of hats from the church drop-off. “There’s a nurse’s hat in here somewhere,” she mumbled. “And look . . .” Emily pulled out a scratched yellow helmet with a light mounted on the brim. Its side was stamped with the H&K mine emblem, a shovel and pickaxe X-ing each other out. “How old do you think this is?” She looked around. “Where’s my beer?”
I told Emily her beer was upstairs. I asked if she could put on some pants and come back down. She said it was cold as fuck and that pants were a pretty good idea. Then she left the kitchen, and I waited until I heard the stairs creaking.
“Okay,” I lied. “Emily says she’s in.”
“Give her the legs.”
I waited for Emily to come back down while the miners shouted above the din of beeping and buzzing. Grady’s voice returned, wavering. “Jesus, Jimmy, if this doesn’t work, just tell Martha I love her. Tell her I’m sorry. Tell them all. You know, from the boys and me . . .”
I agreed to a tiny man’s last request and asked about the one-way trip.
“That’s how it is. You never knew anything about us, James. We weren’t always like this. None of us. We used to be big folks. Life made us this way, one way or another.”
I thought on that for a moment, and then Emily was back in the doorway.
“Grady wants you to hold the legs.”
“He says we’re going to put this right.” I hefted them up and passed them on to Emily, who wrapped the legs over her shoulders and held their feet, as if she was giving them a piggyback ride.
“Okay. She has the legs.”
“Put the helmet on her.”
I lifted the helmet. It was pretty light for a life-changing accessory.
“So we’re going to put the helmet on you,” I said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen after this. But Ted needs his legs or he’s going to die, and you have to flip the breaker or they all die.”
Emily smiled. “I know. It’s okay. I don’t care.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, like, everything. Fuck it. Life’s stupid.”
“Listen, I have to tell you something.”
“Fuck off,” Emily said. “Let’s go get these legs on a gummy man!”
“I’m hammered,” she smiled. “I’ll be fine.”
“What about me?”
I hated myself when I said that. It was as if the words didn’t come from me but from the little kid who lived inside me, the boy who got left alone a long time ago and never found his way home. I knew who I was right then. Sad. Lonely. Lazy. Emily didn’t love me, and she shouldn’t have. Still, I didn’t want her to go. I didn’t even like her, yet I loved her. It was a joke. I didn’t know what I felt. I never did, really, at least never in a way that could help me understand myself. Emily wasn’t like that. She was steady in her way. Better than me. Not crippled by doubt or haunted by regrets and what-ifs, which is to say she was a sociopath in a very charming way.
And Emily was right in herself, and right about life: it was, indeed, stupid and pointless most of the time. At least mine was. I’m sure there are a bunch of fulfilled motherfuckers out there, but the rest of us just can’t seem to pull it together. The rest of us have pieces of human beings in our kitchens, we wear strangers’ clothing, we don’t know what love is supposed to feel like, we issue toxic sludge from our mouths, we go from hangover to hangover and never want to see the sun. Once you don’t see something for long enough you stop believing in it. That’s why I took the pictures, I guess—to prove the sun was there, even if I was looking away.
“Yeah? What about you?” Emily repeated. She was smirking as if she was about to make a joke.
I opened my mouth and closed it, another perch from the lake. “Nothing.” I handed Emily the helmet. “Grady will be on the walkie-talkie. He says there’s a bunch of handsets charging by the office. Turn one on and he’ll talk you through.”
Emily finished her beer, teetered over to the refrigerator, and stuck two more pounders of Hamm’s in the back pockets of her jeans. She clicked her heels, saluting as she turned around, and declared, “Ready for the mission, sir!” Then, with one hand securing Ted’s feet across her chest, she lifted the helmet.
As soon as the canary yellow hard hat touched her crown, Emily began to shrink. She smiled, and then her eyes widened for a moment as the finality of the decision settled in. Fear flashed in her eyes like a wink of the sun as it slips the horizon, and she took hold of my shoulder. She diminished, and her hand trailed down my arm. It was our last caring touch, and as she transitioned through child, terrier, parakeet, field mouse, and beetle sizes, Emily dug her nails into my wrist and scraped them down my palm.
“Jimmy?” Her voice was weird, warping and high-pitched.
She hung on when her feet lifted off the ground, and then Emily was dangling from my fingertips, as light as a dime. I told her not to be afraid, but I was terrified. The mine whistle blew three times, and the steam hissed from my ear again. They wanted us to hurry. I moved Emily to my other hand and cradled her in my palm. She kneeled, placing her hands on either side of my lifeline to steady herself.
A metal latch swung, and something banged open below. An edge of forty-watt light leaked from the back of my heel as the H&K elevator’s metal gates crashed open. I reached down, and Emily scooted down my hand and planted her feet in the alien miniaturized world of my broken linoleum. She stopped, looked around. Maybe she wondered why I never mopped. Maybe she wondered how the curve of the new world outside of her and the old coal mine inside of me existed in the same room. Maybe she had the spins. But I figured she was only getting her bearings. Emily was like that. She handled one thing at a time, as if one can make sense out of the world by maintaining a slow and deliberate march away from reason.
The first thing she did was pull a beer from her pocket, pop the top, and take a swig. Then Emily steadied Ted Stiller’s legs and waved goodbye as she stepped into the freight elevator. Her toothpick silhouette stretched across the kitchen floor, long and strange in the golden light, and it wavered as she reached up to heave on the gate. Then my heel clanked closed and the light was gone. Emily’s shadow went with it.
The cave-in was the end of me as a viable anthracite mine. The inspectors said I was geologically unsound, and I said I could have told them that. They didn’t think it was very funny at the time, but we all forced smiles, like that was a normal thing a person might say. The inspectors were regular sized and, from what I could tell, not great humans. They stayed outside of the city. They asked me where to eat, then went to chain restaurants near the interchange. Their free moments were spent discussing what their wives and kids were doing to drive them crazy while they floated jokes about “the fifty-mile rule” and flicked their fingers over mobile dating apps. The inspectors visited my failed life and rotting house twice, judging me the whole time, which I guess was their job. They stayed afraid of bumping against my grungy walls in their tucked-in polo shirts, and in the end we found ourselves around the table, awash in dusty sunbeams, talking about how I was not the thing they thought I was when they first met me.
People died, I told them. I almost died. So did fourteen miners within my chest, an assumedly infectious scenario I didn’t even want to think about. And the woman I loved changed from a big person to a small one. She flipped a switch and saved us all, I said. But none of that mattered in the paperwork. They didn’t even bother to write it down. I had assumed the risks, they said. I had signed a contract.
The move-out of Kline’s Summit went pretty smoothly, with only one mishap when a pick-up carrying half the town’s chickens tipped over on the switchbacks going down the stairs. They barely paused the convoy, and Lyle and his brothers jumped off a hay wagon to gather what they could, then hopped back on with hysterical chickens gathered into the crooks of their arms. There was no sign of Emily as the people of Kline’s Summit moved on to the next mine in the next person, very businesslike. It had never occurred to me that I wasn’t the first mine they had worked in, and I wouldn’t be the last. How long had they been at it? Did Emily accidentally, drunkenly, slip into immortality that night? Was there really no way back?
I should have told Emily what Grady said about it being a one-way trip, I know. I still think about that late at night when I can’t fall asleep. When the room feels too big. When my shoulders are in the way, no matter which way I roll. But it’s over now. I did what I did, and the mine is gone. There’s an empty space there now, and the miners left columns in place to prop me up, to keep me from caving in again. Let’s hope I hold.
I left the ghost town of Kline’s Summit on the windowsill, decrepit and forgotten like a Christmas village no one picked up after a sad holiday. It has since been overtaken by cobwebs, and a layer of dust lies upon it like freshly fallen snow. The clapboard houses are bleached white by the window’s southern exposure, and when the light is right, if I position the Nikon at the right angle and open up the f-stop, Kline’s Summit looks real pretty, like an ancient land crumbling beneath the thumb of time.
Like everywhere else built and abandoned, Kline’s Summit now belongs to the animals, and it has become a playground for the dogs who chose to stay in a place they knew, where they could chase and feed upon generation after generation of feral chickens. A whole new ecosystem was set in place at the edge of my bed because a pick-up crashed and rolled down a hill, throwing feathers and eggs everywhere. Not even the bugs are safe: I picked up a gutted cockroach on Main Street the other day.
The thing is, outhouses last longer than the people who build them, so maybe the demise of Kline’s Summit proved Emily right. Maybe life is stupid after all, depending on your definition of the terms. What’s even stupider is that I miss her. Every time the doorbell rings and no one is there, or when I misplace a pen, or when the dishes shift in the sink, I still look around, hoping to catch a glimpse of Emily running away, laughing like crazy and holding the canary yellow hard hat atop her head while she slips into a crack in the molding. Because maybe she stayed. Maybe she lives in the walls. Maybe a lot of people do.
I’d like that.