~ A 250 Word Per Chapter Novella ~
Sitting on the water table with legs dangling, Webb gazed west over scrubland mesa top glowing golden-orange under a setting sun which could only be described as a red ball. Evening air cooled and dried by a light, westerly breeze carried scent of dried grass and leaves. A population explosion of crickets graced the close of day with their prodigious song. Nothing else stirred for a long while until Webb heard the deep rumble of the toolpusher's truck approaching. Scrambling to his feet, he spotted the dust cloud stirred by the advancing vehicle. Moving nimbly, he started down the derrick ladder. He wasn't supposed to be climbing on any part of the rig except the steel staircase between ground and floor. He didn't want to lose his job as rig watchman, the only thing he knew how to do to earn money.
Making it down to the monkey board just as the toolpusher pulled onto the pad, Webb dropped, stretched out flat on the board and watched, wondering why the toolpusher wasn't at home for Thanksgiving like everyone else. The rig wouldn't be moved from the dry hole location until Monday. The toolpusher looked around and called his name before hustling a cardboard barrel up to the rig floor then over beside the turntable. Looking around once more, he reached into the barrel and set to tossing its contents down the borehole, one piece at a time.
A foot. An arm. A leg. Another arm. A red-bearded head . . .
Crew began arriving before sunup Monday. Sipping hot coffee from thermoses, they gathered in the doghouse and teased Webb.
"Whew! Somebody stinks." Bob said with a grimace when he came into the doghouse. "What'd you do out here alone all weekend long, Webby? Chase skunks and jack off on 'em?"
"Uh huh," he replied with a grin. Everyone laughed coarsely.
"Damn, next time do us all a favor and wash up in the mud pit before we get back," Bob offered as advice.
"Okay, I will...but...uh...will soap work in a mud bath, Bob?"
More laughter, all mean spirited and brutish, but Webb would never sense it that way. He enjoyed being included in any conversation.
"Sure it will, Webby boy, but you can't use just any soap. You gotta use this. This here rig soap used to clean the substructure," Bob answered, reaching into one of the cardboard barrels for a handful of the powder and flinging it at Webb. "And you gotta scrub down with this instead of a washcloth," he added, jabbing a rig brush at Webb's crotch for emphasis.
Webb retreated out of the doghouse, giggling hysterically as Bob chased after him with the brush. He ducked around the handrail and dashed down the steel staircase with Bob in hot pursuit just as the toolpusher arrived in his loud truck. Webb stopped running and Bob abruptly turned and headed back up into the doghouse.
"Morning, Webbor," Dodd said. "Any problems here over the weekend?"
Vince glared at the sheriff, angry to have to deal with such crap right now. Too many more pressing things clamored in his pounding brain needing immediate attention, not the least of which was survival.
"You say he's been missing three days now?"
"That's right. His truck was found out on Ten Hill Road. Keys still in the ignition. No sign of struggle inside or out. His wife can't reach him on cell."
Vince growled and shouted at Windy to pull Jasper's file.
"Be there with it in a sec," she shouted back from the front office.
His worry mounted tenfold. He could ill afford to lose his senior geologist, especially with him leading the Shadow Ridge Shale project. That exploration effort was his last hope for the company. He and Jasper had kept quiet to everyone else about it for that very reason as they had worked for more than two years now to acquire leases and plan drilling operations to explore the basin. If he lost Jasper, he wasn't sure recovery was possible. He understood the science and logistics of the project but he was too damned busy with financials and politics to take on the geology work too if he lost Jasper. Where the hell is he? Why had he disappeared? Then a chill passed through his body in dreadful understanding.
He sat down and began answering every question he legally could as the sheriff grilled him for details about Jasper's habits of life, work and play.
As the crew lowered the derrick and began dismantling the rig, Webb sat in the doghouse now set off to the side out of the way pondering the cardboard barrel full of powdered rig soap and what Bob had said about bathing with it. A vague memory bubbled up of body parts coming out of a barrel just like it. Where had he seen that? From someplace high up. He was sure of that. The sun had been bright red and low in the sky then, but the body parts were in darkness now.
Taking a bath in drilling mud with rig soap seemed foolish to Webb. Even disturbing. Those body parts were down hole in drilling mud right now, even as the capping crew moved in to close up the borehole for good. Someone yelled from outside.
“Come on outa the doghouse, Webb. Time to put it on the trailer.”
Webb stood back out of the way watching the crew take loose items out of the doghouse, including the barrel of soap, and load it on the trailer with a winch truck. The substructure was dragged away from the wellhead and slowly winched up onto another big trailer. The capping crew moved in, removed the blowout preventer and sealed the wellhead tight with a heavy lid screwed down using a big pipe wrench with a long cheater slid over its handle.
Whoever that was down there in mud was never getting out again, Webb realized, saddened by the thought.
Vince rolled into Sasakwa and wondered at how it had not changed one iota as the new century progressed into its second decade, recalling a day in summer 1959 when he brought his family here to visit Bobbyjo so the kids could meet his kids and ride his shetland pony while they talked about the sands less than a thousand feet below.
Pulling up to a well-whitewashed frame building with a very rusty corrugated steel roofed porch, he wondered if Fanny had changed at all since he last saw her in 1969. If she was still in touch with ETs. If she was getting around okay on her own. It was a wonder she was still alive at all. A nutcase by any measure, yet totally trustworthy with their dangerous secret. One knock on the same cheap, plywood door he last knocked on fifty years ago and there she was. The same but so much older. Eyes still full of crazy. Made Vince feel both himself.
She stepped out and over to the edge of the porch without saying a word, looked up at the sky for a full minute before turning and motioning him inside ahead of her. Nothing had changed inside except for her computing rig. An iMac Pro. Probably configured to the max. He was surprised to see she had a Magic Leap One set up and ready for use.
“It’s ready,” Fanny said. “Put it on and face the wall to your right to see.”
Webb watched Melanie zigzag across broken earth surrounding the pad, tossing her best wildflower seed there first before gradually spiraling inward around and around toward its center—toward him—tossing lesser quality grass and flower seed. He sat still by the capped wellhead, listening to Melanie humming quietly to herself as she drew near. Finally finishing her task, she settled down beside him with a smile and opened a pair of small lunch boxes containing sandwiches, chips and juice.
"PB&J or chicken salad?" she asked, offering both for him to choose from. He took the PB&J box and thanked her as their decades-old picnic ritual began. His sister always let him choose, even though she always knew which he would pick.
"Did you have enough seed?" he asked.
Nodding, she let him look inside the bag where a few handfuls remained.
"Can we plant them here around the wellhead?"
Surprised by her brother's request she didn't question it, nodding in agreement. He sighed and nodded back at her.
"He needs some flowers here," he offered as explanation. "For company when we leave."
"The man in the well."
Melanie frowned at that, not sure if she should press her brother about it. His imaginings were something he guarded. The only possessions of value to him. Best to let him reveal them at his own pace, if ever, no matter how strange.
Finished eating, she watched him scatter seed with care around the head of the useless well.
Vince was flying through the sand formation nine hundred feet beneath Fanny's old house. Marveling at the detailed geophysical imagery and ease with which he could move about in it manipulating a simple set of virtual flight controls which only appeared when he raised his left hand (thankful Fanny remembered he was a lefty) he complemented her fine work.
"You've invented something wonderful in this AR tool, Fanny."
"Pffft. I didn't invent anything. Just made a dillywig to fly through spatial strata data the seismic crews have collected around here for you over the decades. Nobody from here has invented anything new, or useful, since Sam Boyd's co-actional rail joint, which he filed patent for one hundred one years ago.”
Vince grinned at her reference to Boyd. She considered the 1900s inventor a member of her crazy alien visitor’s society, the only thing bringing technological advancement to Earth. He wondered if she thought of him as one of them. A light ping and a bit of text popped up in front of him declaring he had entered the target zone for the first exploratory well. Pivoting deeper and then back up again, he could see the pay zone was where he had predicted it would be.
“Right where you said it would be,” Fanny intoned as she fixed coffee. “At least in the data it is.”
Vince nodded to let her know he heard her but she wasn’t looking at him for acknowledgment. She never cared about being acknowledged.
Melanie drove Webb to his little shotgun shack house perched at the end of a long dirt road on a low cliff at the edge of the Trinity and helped him unload and store groceries they had picked up in town. They sat together for a while on the porch to enjoy the sunset before they prepared their supper.
Bottles came out to join them, purring and rubbing against them both to further cement possession of her humans. Webb purred back as he scratched behind her ears and in front of her short tail. A barred owl swooped down from cliff's edge and perched in a fat mesquite on the shore of the lake below. Then it began hooting and hawing.
Melanie smiled to herself in contentment of the moment. Times of quiet repose like this were possible only with her autistic brother. No one else she knew could sit still long enough to enjoy such times of simple peace and freedom.
"Remember when that owl took my hula popper?" Webb asked.
"Uh huh," she replied, her smile spreading at the memory. "Three times in a row."
"Yep. Even after I took the hooks off!" Webb giggled. "Thought it was catching a real frog!"
Melanie laughed softly with him. "We should go canoeing again soon. I'm getting hungry for crappie and bass."
"Oh yeah! Yeah!" Webb yelped in delight. "Can we gig frogs too? I love frog legs! Especially the ones that try to jump right up outta the frying pan!"
Vince sat with Fanny on her front porch sipping her strange brew, delighting in the coffee he had missed so much.
"Any signs of trouble over your headright?" He asked, referring to the legal instrument guarding the huge secret below her house.
Fanny turned her head deliberately, right then left. "Not a peep."
Vince looked at her closely, wondering how much of her great grandmother was in her stony face. "Are you ready to let it loose?" he asked, already knowing she was. Time was her enemy.
"It's time to set this tired old goose free," she replied with a sweeping wave over the tiny town.
"Are you armed?"
Fanny nodded. "To the teeth!" she replied with an enthusiastic grin that made Vince wonder if shooting would be necessary, shuddering at the thought of the brutal Osage murders. Fanny was Seminole, but foresight of her great grandparents had placed her in similar peril. Peril she was all too aware of, and seemingly ready to face head on—for benefit of the tribe. "The sneaky bastards won't have a chance if they come after me."
"And they will," Vince reminded her. "With a vengeance . . . even in this day and age."
Fanny only nodded that she understood.
"Do you want protection?" he asked.
She turned her head left and right once. "Too many eyes and mouths," she replied. "You know how I hate that."
Vince nodded, wishing there was more he could do to protect her. To keep her safe and happy.
Melanie and Webb watched the sun set and stayed out a bit longer enjoying fading song of cicada before going back inside to cook their supper. Webb did the cooking as Melanie watched. Tonight he wanted potstickers, boiled first, then seared in a frying pan.
As Webb cooked, Melanie set the table and they talked about anything and nothing in particular.
Webb finished searing the potstickers and carefully transferred them from the hot frying pan to a bowl. He had also heated a can of spinach to go with them. Melanie was glad to see he thought on his own of adding a green vegetable to the meal. They sat and ate without talking then cleared the table and washed the dishes together, Webb washing, Melanie drying and shelving.
"Can we watch The Simpsons now?" Webb asked. Melanie checked the time. It was still a little early. Half an hour before the program started. "It's still a while before The Simpsons comes on," she told him. "But we can use the time for you to open a present."
Webb's face lit up. "A present? For me! Yeah. Yeah, let's go!"
They settled into the soft cushions of the couch and Melanie handed the gift to Webb. He examined it for a long while, trying to guess what it was–a game he always enjoyed playing when he received any gift. Melanie waited patiently as he made his guesses, gently saying "No, try again," as each guess he made was incorrect.
“Will it be enough?” Fanny asked as darkness enfolded the little town.
“Enough,” Vince answered. “Many times over.”
“Will they know who did it?”
Vince nodded. “Eventually, but not until we’re both long dead.”
“That’s good.” Fanny sighed. Flying insects swirled around the yellow glow of the porch light. A damselfly landed on Fanny’s forearm and the two regarded each other with calm acceptance. Vince watched them watching each other. Fanny was smiling. It made her look decades younger and he marveled at how much he still loved her as he did when they were decades younger.
“Without casino money,” he added pointedly.
Fanny nodded her approval of that. She hated casino money and what it had done to the tribe. Before the casinos, Seminole were just stinking Indians. Casino money had turned them into lucrative targets. Not since Europeans invaded had they been people in the eyes of anyone but themselves. The children needed to live as people.
“I expect they’ll be upset about it when they do find out. They’re as independent as we are.”
Vince chuckled. “They are that. But as they grow and expand their horizons at their own pace, they’ll come to understand why we did it. The necessity of it as harsh realities of life press in and overwhelm their resistance.”
Together they rose and went back inside to escape a cloud of marauding mosquitos. Arm in arm and happy with their progress.
“I’m glad I didn’t kill you when we met,” Fanny whispered.
Finally giving up after precisely five attempts trying to guess what the gift was, Webb meticulously opened it without tearing the wrapping paper at all. Melanie smiled at this and wiped a bit of snot threatening to drip from her nose. She never cried in front of Webb but her nose drip was something she had no control over when her tear ducts filled. She knew he would reuse the paper to wrap her birthday gift from him.
She made sure the gift box was plain and unmarked with any clues of what was inside. Webb paused before opening it.
“It’s a watch!” he declared, sure he had guessed correctly judging by the size of the box.
Melanie shook her head. “Nope.”
Webb grinned and lifted the lid of the box then gasped in delight. “It’s a Star Trek communicator!”
Melanie let loose a giggle at his reaction as he carefully lifted it from the box and with expert twist of his wrist flipped it open. It emitted the expected electronic chirps and at that instant the sound of an incoming communication whistle came from inside Melanie’s little purse. Webb watched her reach into the purse and pull out an identical communicator to his except that it was metallic green while his was metallic blue. She flipped it open and answered. “Melanie here. Who am I speaking with?”
Webb giggled before answering, almost shouting with glee. “This is Webb, checking in from reconnaissance mission!”
They laughed together, loud and lovingly.
Vince decided to fly back to the office, calling his pilot on his satellite phone instead of using Fanny’s land line so he wouldn’t have to tell him where to come pick him up over the call. It was scrambled but he figured the NSA knew how to descramble it. He always liked to do everything possible to prevent letting the government know anything about his business dealings, especially when Fanny was involved.
The flight back was smooth and uneventful, as was the landing on the company airstrip. And it was just long enough to work out details of the next phase of work to be conducted beneath Fanny’s little wooden house on his tablet before sharing them with his chief drilling engineer.
Six slant rigs would be sufficient, three drilling east to west and three north to south. The first six boreholes would be spaced on every other drilling unit so more could be drilled later between the first holes, if needed, to maximize fracking effect through the formation zone. He doubted there would be much problem with downhole pressure but planed for extremes anyway. Better safe than sorry. It wouldn’t do to have a blowout and burning rig at the edge of town. That would attract government attention for sure.
His chief drilling engineer met him in his office and they discussed the drilling operation to iron out any kinks and fill in missing matters they always seemed to come up with when talking together face to face.
Leaping to his feet, Webb sprinted toward the rim of the mesa and leaped over the edge, landing at a run on the narrow, well-worn trail leading down to the river. Melanie heard him yelling as he scrambled down the trail.
“I’m gonna try to call you from the river bottom, Melanie! Stay on the porch!”
Melanie did as instructed, waiting for his call. She knew the call would go through since the communicator was actually a military-grade satellite phone dressed up to look like the Star Trek prop. Communications engineers at their father’s company had no problems dressing the phone up to look like an official Star Trek communicator, but they had worried over making the flip-up cover of it function properly as its antenna.
“It works better than we expected, Mel,” an electrical engineer named Daniel had informed her when he presented the finished phone to her. “That sixties mod cover is a damn good antenna design,” he added with a chuckle. It had been Daniel’s idea to make a second one of a different color for her to use. “He won’t like it if he sees yours looks different,” he had said and she agreed, pleased by Daniel’s sensitivity to Webb’s particular ways.
Her phone whistled and she answered. “Melanie here. Report.”
“Webb here. This planet has some interesting riparian lifeforms, like nothing ever seen before!”
Stifling a giggle to stay as serious as Webb was, she replied, “Will you be collecting any samples?”
“Any word from our geologist?” Vince asked.
His chief engineer, Gary, shook his head while looking down at the tattered leather of his steel-toed boots. He would need a new pair soon. “None.”
Vince scowled and growled his frustration aloud. “Where the hell can he be? What the hell can he be up to disappearing like this?” he asked, not really expecting an answer from Gary.
“Might not be his doing,” Gary said. “Considering what he knew. Maybe someone else found out and . . .”.
“And what,” Vince asked, his scowl deepening as Gary looked up to meet his eye.
“And took him out. Killed him.”
“Damn!” Vince almost shouted, knowing Gary could be right but hating the thought of it and all it implied.
“Any ideas on who might do such a thing?”
“None,” Gary replied quietly. “But I’m thinking on it, and probing discretely.”
“Good, Gary. Stay at it while we get the drilling operation started up. It’s too bad he isn’t here to help us target prime pay zones when samples start coming up, but we can’t wait any longer. In the meantime, stay quiet about this. Don’t say anything to anyone, especially the regulators or police.”
Gary nodded and left the office, tapping and swiping at his tablet to study Vince’s drilling plan. Vince followed him to the door, watching him scanning the plan, then closed the door and prepared for the rest of the work day, reminding himself to go see Webbor about his next watch.
You know better than that, science officer Melanie.” Webb admonished. his voice coming through crystal clear. “Prime Directive. They wouldn’t survive outside their natural environment.”
“Oh yes,” she replied. “My mistake, Captain.”
“Signing out. One ready to beam up,” Webb declared and closed his communicator before clipping it to his belt and starting back up to the mesa top at a run through fading evening light.
Melanie went to watch him coming back up. The trail was badly eroded in places but Webb proceeded up at a nimble pace. She was always amazed at how quickly he could move over rough terrain, even in the twighlight shade of the canyon. Smiling broadly as he crested the rim, he gently wrapped his arms around his sister and kissed her on top of her head.
“Thank you, Melanie. Now I need to go to bed and sleep so it won’t be so hard to wait for your birthday party tomorrow.”
They were dizygotic twins, born eleven hours apart across two days. She and Webb always celebrated their birthdays together over two days like this. She wouldn’t have it any other way. Neither would he. So they went back to the house to their separate bedrooms and slept soundly.
At dawn, Melanie smelled the delicious aromas of chicken and green chili quesadillas drifting from the kitchen. Webb was cooking her favorite birthday breakfast for her–unsupervised. She knew he was purposely cooking on his own to show her how he was growing up.
Vince stared at the toes of his own shoes, seeing far beyond their shine into the future he hoped could be. The future he and Fanny were angling for together without dragging the children into the middle of it in any form or fashion. That was the constant that could not change in the equation. They wanted their children to grow into what they should be instead of what others–including he and Fanny–thought they should be, and would never be able to conform to anyway. Webbor by innocent nature of his autism, and Melanie by the almost fatalistic stubborn nature she inherited from Fanny and many of their long line of ancestors.
Allowing himself to drift half asleep, he smoothly entered the place where he always found the best answers to the toughest problems. The place where voices and visions of past, present and future mingled naturally and effortlessly. The voice of Fanny's grandfather spoke from far edges of that place to him.
"I see where you’re going with your delving and designing in the white man's world," he told Vince again, just as he had upon meeting him for the first time. "It is bizarre and complex but admirably brave."
Vince listened respectfully.
"The risk is great, though, especially for your children."
At that first meeting Vince had spoken up at this point, telling him he did not have children.
The old man had waved dismissively. "You and Fanny have children, you just don't know it yet."