I got a bumper sticker on my truck says Pray For Me, I Work At Liberty Pipe. The three years I worked here I've seen guys get their hands melted off in the furnaces. I saw a guy run over by a forklift with no brakes. One guy on my shift got his hand sucked into a belt roller and stood there screaming for three hours before anybody heard him, and when they shut the damn machine down and pulled out his arm it was eaten up to the elbow and his bone there was polished. Three hours. Three fucking hours. The company fired him for engaging in unsafe working practices.
It's when Maury got crushed by a hydraulic piston in a molding machine that I met the people from the other place. I don't know what they were. Perfect people, like kings and queens from a storybook. Or fucking fairies.
The foundry is dark and loud and hot. You work in black sand up to your ankles, breathing sand and arsenic and beryllium and who knows what else. You get spattered with molten metal drops; I got the scars. The noise gets in your head: pipes slamming around, the exhaust system roaring, pneumatic cutting machines, grinding machines, men shouting. Gets so your head is so stuffed full of noise you got no room for your own thoughts.
There's just one rule here: Keep the pipe rolling off the line. Don't need to think about anything else, I guess.
KEEP THE PIPE ROLLING OFF THE LINE!
This isn't a story I'm telling you. These things really happened.
I was coming to the end of my shift—twelve hours shoveling sand under a molding machine—and the supervisors marched through shouting "Four more hours!" Shit. Guy next to me—Maury—shrugged and went back to work, moving this black sand that was getting into his lungs and would have killed him eventually if the piston wasn't about to get him first. I threw down my shovel. Fuck this shit. Let 'em give me a Disciplinary Action, let 'em fire me, I don't care. I climbed up the ladder out of the pit, pulling off my gloves, wiping sweat and black dust off my face with my sleeve. Fuck this fucking shit, I was thinking, I've had enough.
One of the supervisors, guy named Rivera, called down from a catwalk overhead. "Where the hell you going, McCrown? Your shift ain't over."
Oh, yes it is, I thought. No point talking to Rivera about it, he wouldn't hear nothing over the noise anyway. As an answer, I threw down my gloves and walked off, making my way through the maze of glowing pipes, smoke, furnaces, and blackened machinery. Went up a ladder to the main floor, dodged an out-of-control forklift carrying a load of white-hot metal, and headed for the door. Didn't bother clocking out.
Got about two steps into the fresh air and sunlight when the floor manager, Mackie, grabbed my arm. "Where the hell you going, McCrown?"
Mackie's a big guy, six-three, probably three hundred pounds, twice as old as me and twice as big. He's got a goatee the color of rust and a tattoo on his shoulder of the American flag with the words "Don't Fuck With This" underneath.
"None of your business," I said. Asshole. "I quit."
This shouldn't have been a surprise to Mackie. They got a turnover at Liberty Pipe of almost a hundred percent each year. Guys quit all the time. Me, though, I'd been working there almost three years, since I graduated high school and realized I didn't have enough money to go to college, and maybe they got used to seeing me around.
Rivera appeared in the doorway, squinting against the light. "What's going on, Mackie?"
"Kid says he quits." Mackie crossed his arms and stared down at me.
"Fuck him," Rivera said. "We got a quota. Let's go, man."
Mackie shook his head. "Hang on, Frank." He kept staring at me and I didn't look away. "We need a new supervisor, Cupola One, iron-pouring station. You work that station before, McCrown?"
"Yeah." That's the station where you piss in your pants because the supervisor won't give you a break to use the bathroom.
"Good." Mackie nodded. "You want that job?"
I almost told him to fuck off. I should have known escape wouldn't be that easy.
"Twenty bucks an hour," Mackie said. "Health insurance, life insurance, paid vacation, profit sharing if you keep production up. Whaddya say?"
I should have told him to fuck off. But I didn't.
REDUCE MAN HOURS PER TON!
"Here's the deal, kid," Mackie said, handing me a clipboard. We were in the floor manager's office, thick, grimy Plexiglas windows separating us from the noise of the foundry. A guy in a suit was sitting at Mackie's desk, listening. Mackie kept talking. "You watch the pumpkinheads"—those are the new guys, they wear orange safety helmets—"make sure they don't get themselves hurt. Any of 'em gets hurt, give 'em a D.A. They give you shit about it, put 'em on death row. Remember, Safety Starts With Attitude. Keep production up because if you don't, then you go on death row, and you stay on death row long enough, we'll fire your ass."
I guess none of this sounded contradictory to him. "Okay," I said. Twenty bucks an hour made it okay.
The suit spoke up. "This foundry is underperforming," he said, and took a sip of coffee from a styrofoam cup. "The company expects the supervisors to engage in more disciplined management practices in order to transform this into an efficient operation. Do you see what I'm saying, McCrown?"
"Yeah," I said. I could definitely see what he was saying. Fuck the line workers, fuck OSHA, fuck the safety rules and the EPA rules, just keep the pipe rolling off the line.
"Good," said the suit. He went to the office door and opened it, and under the noise that rushed into the room said something that made Mackie twitch like a deer in a gun sight. I squeezed past them and went out to the main floor and then out to Cupola One, iron-pouring station.
The day we burned a hole to the other place seemed like a usual day. The guys at my station were okay working with me because I made sure they got insulated gloves so they didn't have to wrap their hands with duct tape, and I'd fill in for them if they had to go take a piss.
I was writing out a quota report when one of the guys called me over. This was one of the new convicts they got from the prison down the highway; he was wearing an orange helmet and was covered with black soot. I followed him along the catwalk to the cupola. Usually, the guys call me over, it means somebody's gotten hurt. I was already pulling out an accident report form and worrying about how I was going to handle the Disciplinary Action.
The place where the iron gets melted down is a dark and smoky corner of the foundry, lit only by the glow from the cupola. The air shimmers there it's so hot, about 150 degrees. Three guys were staring at the cupola with their mouths open. Cupola's like this giant ladle full of white-hot light, a holding place for the molten metal before it tips and pours in a burning waterfall down into the molds.
"What's the matter?" I yelled.
Guy named Fitch had been there longest—all of three months—so he answered. "Lopez got his hand in the spill!" he shouted.
Shit. Serious injury. Lopez would be fired before the company paid workman's comp, and I'd get in trouble if production lapsed. I looked at the guy, Lopez, but he wasn't squirming around on the floor screaming, like he should have been.
"You hurt your hand?"
The guys turned to look at me, their eyes rimmed in white in their blackened faces. Lopez pulled off his glove and showed me his hand. It was dirty but not melted off like it would have been if it had really got caught in the spill.
Fitch came over to yell in my ear. "I saw it, boss! His glove caught on the lip, there, and the flow went right over his hand. He started yelling and we went over to check it out. I'm not shitting you, but there was this window in the metal soup, where his hand was stuck. Then he pulled his hand out and it wasn't burnt or nothing!"
I shook my head. They were giving me crap. "Bullshit!" I yelled. "Get a drink of water and get back to work."
Lopez—he was a prisoner too, he wore a tracking bracelet on his wrist—came over and grabbed me by the arm. I was ready to get the hell out of there because I guessed it was going to be me accidentally falling in the spill next, if they were planning something. "Weirdest shit I ever seen," Lopez shouted in my ear. He pulled me toward the cupola.
I yanked my arm out of his grip and got ready to take off running when I saw what they were looking at.
It wasn't really like a window. It was more like, right in the middle of the molten metal was this spot where something had burned away. Some kind of skin between our world and this other place. It was bright there, too, but it was sunlight-bright, and when I squinted through the glare I thought I could see grass and blue sky. Next to me, Lopez leaned out, put his bare hand down into the center of that place. He pulled his hand back and it was glowing. A second later there was a clang, the cupola tipped and a rush of molten metal spilled out. We all jumped back as the wave of heat hit us, looking for the white-hot window into the other place, but it was gone.
"You gonna report that?" Fitch asked after a minute.
I shook my head. There's no place on the report form for Unexplainable Weird Shit.
NO COMPROMISE ON ENVIRONMENTAL EXCELLENCE!
The next day, Mackie showed me this pile of old tires, probably 200 of 'em, out by the scrap iron heap, and told me to get rid of 'em. I checked the EPA handbook and it said the tires had to go to a hazardous waste dump and the company had to pay a waste disposal fee plus about 750 bucks to have the tires hauled away. Yeah, right. Just to see what Mackie would do, I filled out the forms and went to get him to sign. He was up on a catwalk over the cooling floor, one of the noisiest parts of the plant.
He said something I didn't hear and crumpled up the form and tossed it onto the main floor, below. A forklift carrying an overflowing bull of molten metal ran over it.
"What?" I yelled.
Mackie leaned closer to shout into my ear. "Just get a couple of guys to throw 'em in a cupola, McCrown."
But that's illegal, I thought. State air quality laws. No point in arguing about it, so I shrugged and went to get Fitch and Lopez to hump the tires up to Cupola One. We threw them in, right in the white-hot center.
It must have been clean-up time because that same night Mackie got me to stay late to flush the drains. We got these empty cellars under the plant and they fill up with contaminated water. We flush them at night, Mackie said, because the shit goes out to the river and downstream before anybody notices where it came from. In high school biology we did this study on river ecology and nobody could figure out why so many frogs had four back legs or no eyes. Now I know.
SAFETY STARTS WITH ATTITUDE!
The next day after that, Maury got crushed by the piston. He was taking a shortcut at the end of his shift, cutting through a molding machine he thought was turned off. He got in there and it went on, the piston came down and broke him all up. Rivera called 9-1-1 while Fitch and me pulled Maury out. He was still alive when the ambulance guys got there, but he didn't start screaming until they lifted him onto the gurney. The guys stood around, looking anywhere but at Maury's crushed legs and chest.
"Get the line moving," Rivera said.
I didn't say anything, just stood there.
"We got a quota, McCrown," he said, turning away. "Let's go, man."
I rounded up my crew and headed up to Cupola One, iron-pouring station. The guys, these tough convicts, were scared and quiet, not joking around like usual. I wanted to tell them I wouldn't let what happened to Maury happen to them, but how could I promise something like that?
We went back to work. After a while I gave Lopez a break so he could go take a piss. It's hot work; I took a rest, leaning against the safety railing, my back to the boiling cupola. With a jolt, the screws holding up the railing gave way. I was off balance, going over backward—I saw Fitch, saw him seeing me fall, leaping to grab my hands, but it was too late. I didn't even have a chance to scream. I fell back into the white-hot center of the cupola and was gone.
I fell through the light and landed hard, breath knocked out of me. I couldn't tell if I was dead or not. Maybe it was heaven, I was thinking. It couldn't be hell, because after working three years at Liberty Pipe I was pretty sure hell was going to be soot, noise, heat, and paperwork. This place was quiet. A cool breeze washed over my face and I smelled grass and dirt. The light was so bright I couldn't see anything; my eyes were crying until I put my arm up over my face. After a couple minutes I looked out.
Standing around me were these tall people with beautiful, cold, still faces. Like angels whose bodies were made out of light covered with skin. They shone. They stared down at me and they didn't look happy. Judgment day. Shit.
One of them said something I couldn't understand.
I sat up and wiped the tears off my face, and my hand came away smeared with black soot.
When I moved they glided back like they were afraid of getting dirty. A couple of them wrinkled their noses. Yeah, after a ten-hour shift and pulling Maury out of the molding machine, I smelled pretty bad. They said some more things in their language, talking about me, I figured. One of them turned away, and I didn't see any wings, so I guessed they weren't angels.
One stepped forward, the leader. He was tall and sort of skinny but he looked strong; he had light brown skin and hair and green eyes and was dressed in green. I stood up and faced him. He looked me over and said something that made the others laugh. Then he said something else, to me, and pointed at a path leading over the grassy plain.
Maybe I could have argued, not that they would have understood me. I figured I should have been dead anyway, falling into the cupola, so I did what they told me. Two walked ahead of me and two behind, like a guard. None of them touched me. They didn't seem to want to look at me, either. I couldn't blame them, I knew I looked like shit.
The path led through fields of soft grass and flowers like tiny stars in a green sky. In the distance were foothills covered with trees, and behind them were mountains with snow-covered peaks turning pink as the sun went down. It looked like this perfect scene, like you might see through a clear window pane. No dirty fingerprints were on it. I was willing to bet they didn't have any factories there, nothing like Liberty Pipe.
I'd been working a long day and a late shift the night before, flushing the drains, and I was tired. The fairies walked without making a sound, their feet like velvet on the grassy path. I was stumbling in my work boots. After the sky darkened and stars came out and I'd fallen for about the third time, they stopped. I lay down with my face pressed into the cool grass and went to sleep.
When I woke up, I was lying on a different patch of ground, the grass all burnt and shriveled and the dirt under it baked dry. I saw big lumps of black tar and pools of something bubbling and stinking like rotten eggs. A little further off, the ground rose up into bare hills with broken-off dead trees and rocks scattered over them. In one of the hills was a wide, dark opening. A cave. I sat up. They must have carried me and left me here, but I couldn't figure why. I stood up and looked around.
Not too far off, the leader of the fairies, or whatever they were, was leaning against a boulder, watching me. I went over. He straightened up, then reached into a bag at his feet and pulled out a couple of things. The first was a metal helmet. He looked at it for a second and, before I could stop him, plopped it onto my head. It was too big, and fell over my eyes so I couldn't see. As I was pushing it back, he shoved the next thing into my hand—a shield made of a wood frame with canvas stretched over it. Into my other hand he put a spear, a straight staff of light wood with a point on it that looked like a silver leaf.
He stepped back and looked me over, like he had before, like he was sizing me up. His face looked angry, but I didn't know what I'd done to piss him off. He said a bunch of words in his flowing language and pointed across the stinking puddles of tar and the shriveled grass toward the cave.
I had no idea what he wanted me to do.
He took me by the shoulder, pointed me toward the cave, and gave me a little push. I took a couple of steps and looked back. He pointed to the cave again, said something that sounded like a challenge, or maybe an order. I took a deep breath and went on.
The ground steamed wherever I stepped. I had to use the spear as a walking stick and to test how deep the bubbling puddles were. There were some drifts of black sand, too, and oozing lumps of tar, and rusting metal skeletons, all of it giving off poisonous fumes which swirled around like a mist, making me cough and making my eyes run with tears. Off to the side, I caught a look at something moving and the sound of a plop into water. I twitched around and dropped the spear. Ripples were moving on the surface of a puddle. Next to the puddle was a heap of sticks that looked like white bones, maybe a skull. Shit. I picked up the spear and kept going.
When I was about halfway up the hill leading to the cave, I turned and looked back. The leader was still there, by the boulder, joined by a bunch of the others, watching. None of them moved. I faced the cave and started climbing up the slope, over the rocks and bones and rotting logs. Safety Starts With Attitude, I was thinking. I had the helmet and the shield and I wasn't going to drop the spear again. They were sending me to deal with something and I was going to have to deal with it. I'd survived three years at Liberty Pipe, so I figured I could survive just about anything.
I kept going, but froze when I heard a noise louder than the foundry in the middle of a twelve-hour shift, a noise like shrieking metal and grinding gears. A stinking fog rolled out from the cave. Coughing, I gripped the spear; the helmet fell over my eyes and I pushed it back. Looming through the clouds of poisonous steam, a giant head appeared, swiveling back and forth, looking for something. I took a couple of quick steps back and tripped over a rotten log. The helmet fell off and went bouncing down the hill among the rocks.
The dragon saw me. It started to squeeze out of the opening, its fat sides scraping the walls of the cave with the sound of metal on rock. I scrambled up and took a couple more steps back, gripping the spear and the shield.
The dragon's head was bigger than a forklift, with teeth like rusty spikes and a crest of barbed wire running down its back to its tail, which slithered along behind it like an armored snake. Its skin was made of rubber covered with corroded metal rivets. It had no wings. Its eyes were the white-hot boiling metal of the cupola.
Its jaws creaked open and it roared out a blast of heat and smoke that sent me back, coughing, with my arm over my face. It came after me, using its claws to drag its fat belly over the ground. Dodging away, I felt molten heat radiating from its skin, heard gears roaring as it pulled back its head to strike. Its head crashed down and I jumped out of the way, rocks rolling under my feet, falling hard onto the ground. As I scrambled back up again, the dragon heaved around and swiped at me with a rusty claw. I put up the shield, but the claw sliced right through it and into my arm. I dropped the shield, feeling hot blood flowing down my wrist. The dragon loomed up, huge, clouding the air with soot and shadow, blocking out the sun. For just a second I saw myself as the watching fairies saw me, a tiny pale shape gripping a useless spear, about to be swallowed up by a grinding, shrieking darkness.
The spear felt smooth and cool in my good hand. The leaf at the tip glowed like a star in the darkness. Slowly, the dragon raised a claw for the final blow. Just as slowly, the claw thundering down over my head, I slid out of the way. The claw bit into the ground with a shower of blue sparks.
As it roared in frustration, I darted around to its side, which loomed above me like a high wall. With all my strength, I thrust the spear. I figured the point would just bounce off the rubber-and-rivet skin, but it slid right in. I pulled it out again and blood spurted out with it, hot and oily. The dragon screeched. I gripped the spear and got ready for the next attack.
The dragon pulled its head back, like a snake, and coughed out a gob of sizzling tar. I jumped aside, and the tar splatted into the ground beside me. While the dragon was thinking about that, I ducked to the side and stabbed it again. The spear point went in clean and came out with a slurp and another gush of stinking oily blood. I jumped to the side again and jabbed upward with my spear, up under its jaws. It pulled back, wrenching me off my feet, but I held on and the spear point jerked out. The dragon roared and shook its head, spattering me with drops of blood that burned when they touched my skin. With the sound of grinding gears its head crashed down after me but I was already around behind it, jumping over its tail, to its other side, where I stabbed again with the spear. And stabbed again, and again.
The ground was slippery with oil and blood and the dragon's roars were sounding desperate, like an engine revving too high. The air was so thick with soot and steam I could hardly see and I was coughing with every breath. The spear handle was slick with blood, mine and the dragon's.
I stumbled away from a claw swipe and stabbed with the spear. I was watching the dragon's head, ready, but its tail slammed into me from behind like a boulder. As I fell, the spear slithered out of my hand. The dragon's foot hurtled down, one claw going through my shoulder like a hot knife, pinning me to the ground. The pain flashed before my eyes, red and molten white. I heard a sucking sound, its head moving back for the final strike. Blindly, I felt for the spear, and it came to my hand, the shaft solid and strong. The dragon's head came grinding down for the kill. I turned the spear and thrust it up, felt it slice in clean and sharp and deep.
The dragon groaned, metal against metal. Its blood rained down. It pulled away, its claw sliding out of my shoulder. Its head arched back, and it roared, then slowly tipped over, landing with an echoing crash that shook the ground.
I lay on the singed dirt, trying to catch my breath. My arm throbbed with pain and my throat was rough and sore. Looking up, I saw the mist clearing and the sky turning deep blue. A rock was poking into my back, so I turned over and, moving slowly against the pain, got to my knees.
The dead dragon lay about ten feet away, its body steaming, rubber melting off it in big lumps, exposing rusted gears and corroded metal ribs. Its eyes were dull and cold.
I crouched there for a minute, just looking. The dragon had been huge, but it was melting away, like butter on a hot skillet. Pretty soon there'd be nothing left of it. I'd done that; I'd killed it. I shook my head and, leaning on the spear, got to my feet. Walking carefully, trying not to bump my arm or shoulder, I climbed down the hill, around the puddles and rocks, to where the fairies were waiting.
Looking around, I found the path through the grass and started walking. The fairies followed. My shoulder and arm were aching with every step, but I leaned on the spear and kept going.
After a while, the path crossed a stream. I stopped to rest, watching the water running over the rocks. The leader brought me a cup made out of leaves, filled with water; they watched while I drank it. When my lips touched it some soot washed off, staining the water black. The water was clear, like crystal, and cold. It went in and spread like a cool stream through my whole body, like taking a drink of ice water after a long hot shift on the cupola. It washed out the arsenic and black soot I'd been working in the last three years, and washed out the pain of my shoulder and arm. I sat there with my eyes closed, just taking breaths. After a while I was ready to go on. The leader helped me up and we went along the grassy path.
If I had been by myself, I would have passed it by. There was no glowing hole, just a trampled place in the grass. The crossing place.
I looked at the leader. He looked back at me and nodded, then turned and spread his arms, like he was showing me the land, the grass and the low hills and the shining mountains in the distance. He looked at me again and I realized that he was offering it to me, saying I could stay if I wanted to.
I shook my head. He looked surprised, then gave a little bow. "Thanks," I said, and was surprised at the tired, rusty sound of my voice.
I walked around the trampled area, smelling that burning soot smell of the foundry, knowing it was close. Lifting up my hand, I felt in the air for the place, then I found it under my fingertips, like hot, stretched skin. I pushed, gently, and it thinned, and tore. Through the opening I saw shadowy shapes, smoke, soot, and heard the distant roar of the foundry. Maybe they'd give me Disciplinary Actions and put me on death row, and maybe they'd fire me. Didn't matter, I had to go.
There was a clang and a flare of white-hot metal as the cupola tipped, and a wave of scorched air rushed past me. The edges of the hole shriveled away from the heat, making the hole wider. I held my breath, gripped the spear, and got ready.
No, I couldn't stay, even though the other place was beautiful and perfect. I had too much to do at home. Dragons to slay. I took one last breath of clear air and jumped through, into the darkness.