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May 27, 2024

What Is Left

By Paul Lubaczewski

Flight, flight was the only option left now! Ethan didn't want IT to find him, he certainly couldn't fight IT off! He could only run as fast as the light of the moon would allow him and maybe he could try to pray! His situation was his own fault, and now Ethan only had to hope he somehow managed to survive it!

Ethan had just been down at the falls when he wanted to get out of the house, but there wasn't anyone around to play with and it was his favorite spot to pass the time. His folks had told him to get back before dark time and again, he told them he would, but it had been a busy day of playing and swimming in the swimming hole. Well, it made you tired for whatever reason. So, with the sun still shining down bright and hot onto the rock he was lying on, he had just gently drifted off for a nap.

When he'd woken up, it was with a start to find that the sun was down! Ethan needed to get home right now, or to somebody's home, staying here was asking to die! Realizing his situation, the boy had run as fast as he was able if he wanted to get out of this. The moon was out, but it was cloudy enough it was like the whole world had dimmed. The trail was easy in broad daylight, but this wasn't broad daylight, it was dark, and rocks stuck up everywhere along it just waiting to trip you and make you stumble. Even if Ethan was safe for the moment a broken leg didn't help his chances of surviving this any.

He could see the lighter sky vanish into the tree line above him, the road would be just a bit below that. Once he got there, he'd need to start making good time. Ethan's breath came in panic gasps as he ran with all the speed he could manage, which because of the state of the trail, and the steepness of the climb out of the valley, was really only a cross between a jog and a brisk walking pace. Nothing was there behind him right now, but Ethan knew it would be, soon enough!

Was that a noise in the holler? His very soul begged for it to not be a noise in the holler! Ethan tried to pick up his pace as much as he was able, which wasn't much, he was already going almost as fast as he could. He could just now make out the little ridge that meant the road dead ahead. Getting to the road wasn't home free, but it increased his chances of getting to a house from there.

Ethan scrambled and then stumbled on to the road and stood bent over panting for a moment. But only for a moment! There! Ethan heard something now for sure, crashing through the undergrowth below him! Not wasting a moment to look he took off running down the sloping road and towards town, he knew he'd never make it to the houses further up the hill, it was too far and too steep!

Ethan knew what was down below him, and he knew it wouldn't be down there for long! He was positive it would have his scent already, it'd be coming for him. Ethan's only hope left to him was to get inside somewhere, everybody knew it wouldn't break into houses. If only he could get to one in time, he'd be all right!

The road looked surreal as he bounded down it with the glow of the moon breaking through the clouds. The road was steep enough that he was getting up a good turn speed at least. Ethan had to be careful though, going this fast with momentum behind him, one slight stumble and he'd fall with bone-breaking consequence. If he fell, the boy doubted he'd even have a chance to get up again!

Coming up! It was the Johnson's driveway, he just needed to slow down a little to turn the corner and he'd be fine! They'd be inside, he knew they'd be, they knew to stay in! He could hear claws now clicking on the macadam coming towards him, but how fast could it really move anyway?

Skidding on to the stone drive he slipped a bit and almost fell, which scared him more than anything in his young life ever had before. He screamed into the night, "Mister JOHNSON!" Before his feet tore into the stones and he began to force his tired legs to climb the hill to the house.

He still had a bit to go when Ethan saw the living room light of the small shack of a place turn on. They'd woken up, they'd let him in! He was going to get out of this! He was going to be safe! He was going to --

A moment later, the front door banged open. An elderly man in a bathrobe holding a shotgun stood there wreathed in the light of the living room peering out into the night. "Who's there?" the bald man bellowed into the dark.

Nobody answered his question, and at night in these hills that was answer enough.

"Damn it, Pete, we still got to check it!"

"Says who? Bill, I get what you're getting at, but have you seen our budget?" the dark-haired middle-aged man leaned back in his chair.

"Pete, I know. I went to the capitol to fight against the cuts, remember? But the population drop, it's too much. Some of it is a cancer rate that is STILL too high and should be checked all on its own, some of it is people getting out while they can, but that is still not a population drop from 5,000 people to 200 in twenty years. On my own time, I ran the numbers, a third of that drop is practically unaccounted for. Dig further, and the missing person rate for the area is insane, that's when they bother to report it," Bill replied with his hand on his hips. He had stopped his back and forth journey across the room while they had argued this and had stopped in front of Pete's desk.

"All right, I can see you're going to be 'passionate' about this. Why not report it to the feds?" Pete's face looked open and honest as he said it, his face usually did. He might not be the most accomplished scientist in the field, but Pete was great to put in front of the camera to answer press questions, his slightly doughy middle-aged face could exude good-natured honesty about everything.

"Because, I would have to get it through proper channels, and if you haven't noticed, our hack political appointees won't take anything to the actual EPA unless we have evidence in hand," Bill shrugged his thin shoulders.

"Citizens report?"

"Evidence again."

Pete sighed and rubbed at the wrinkles on his forehead before replying, "All right, I'll tell you what, I'll dig up something nearby that we are authorized to investigate. That will cover your hotel and travel. But promise me you don't step on too many local toes while you're out there. They call up the state to bitch, there is no way I can explain why you're in town. OK? We gotta deal?"

Bill grinned wide, "And people say you're just a pencil pusher, Pete, they don't love you like I do."

Bill had a hotel room in the larger town nearby of Elm Peak, large being a subjective term of course. Pete could explain that being down the highway from what Bill was technically checking was saving on expenses and Elm Peak was cheaper, even when you figured in gas. The hotel was cheaper for more reasons than just location. The walls had stains, the sink spit out rust every time you turned it on, and Bill was desperate to not even consider what the bed looked like underneath the sheets. Still, it beat camping, he'd had to do plenty of that over the years while out on assignment. Appalachia still had long stretches where there just aren't any hotels or motels to set up in, where a person would find themselves begging for even a horrid hotel like this one. Mining had been to and left those areas already, and what hotels they'd ever had, had been left to rot, along with the towns and people the mining companies abandoned as well when they left.

Today he was standing in the office of the Mayor of Milden, population 200. The office in question was inside of a double-wide trailer parked in the lot in front of what had been the old town hall. It had been explained that there was some termite damage, and bad plumbing in the old, almost church-like building, so since they didn't have the money to fix it, they had talked FEMA out of leaving a trailer they had brought in to the area for a serious flood a few years back.

The Mayor himself was an elderly man, with just a dusting of white hair on the sides of his head, but bald on top, "So, what is it you expect me to do here? Mr. ummm ... Torrance?"

"Not a lot really Mr. Johnson, I just need to run some tests, soil, water." Bill shrugged.

"To prove what? To do what?" Mayor Johnson eyed him suspiciously.

"Well, you have to know about the town's cancer rates, they just aren't normal. We figure something must have been dumped here, we hope to track it down. If we aren't able to, to put the price tag to the company that did it, we'll try to kick it up to the feds to pay for it," Bill said, in his best, "we're your friends" government employee voice.

"Humph," the old man snorted, "damned sight late iff'n ya' ask me. We've been writing the state for ten years now, ain't seen a one of you people out here."

"Well, I'm here now. I had to run the numbers myself to see just how abnormal they were. So, whoever you were writing missed the significance, or, you know how the state works, Mr. Johnson, they were probably an industry appointee from the Governor," Bill shrugged.

The old man's eyes narrowed, "So, why in the hell you think they're gonna let you do anything now? If the people higher up the food chain than you were tossing our letters in the trash, what makes you think they ain't gonna' do the same with your, 'findings'?"

Bill grinned at that, "Because once I have my findings, I can take them to the Feds or even better, the press. I'm close enough to retirement anyway, my pension's intact if I quit or get fired tomorrow. Probably won't come to that, but still, if it does ..."

Mayor Johnson did something he hadn't since Bill had walked in his door, he smiled, "Well, I don't know how much help I can possibly be, but I guess I can wish you good luck with that. If you have trouble getting on a few properties, just have 'em call me, I'll explain."

Bill figured his first place to go would be downstream out of town and work his way back taking samples as he went. It had to be assumed that further downstream would have whatever toxins were poisoning this place in them, and by making his way back with careful recordings of where he had gotten his earth and water samples from, he'd be able to track it to the source. Streams here tended to be fed mainly by mountain run-off instead of springs, so there would be numerous streamlets feeding in. His best hope was to find which one was the culprit and work back along that.

He found a trail outside of town, along a relatively well-traveled road. Bill couldn't help but figure that this must lead down to something of interest, the trail was clear enough to have had decent traffic. Parking his truck, he began his hike into the woods, finding immediately that he was starting from well up the side of a largish hill, noting that he could easily hear the water he was seeking below him. It jibed with his topo well enough, the stream he wanted carrying all of the feeder streams out of town. A perfect place to make a start of it.

As he got further down the hill and closer to the stream, he could now see why he had been able to so easily hear it. There was a beautiful thirty- to forty-foot-high falls that the stream pounded over sending a mist into the air, and thunder filling the valley. Bill sighed; he could smell the water was slightly off, a stench of something clung to it. Here was this beautiful piece of mother nature's best handiwork, something that people would love to come and see if only they knew about it, and he knew even before he started to take samples that you wouldn't want to wade around in that water or eat any fish from this stream. It was definitely polluted, he just needed the samples now to tell him with exactly what.

It seemed to him that something like this would be hard for anybody to resist visiting. Bill also thought he could see some tangles of fishing line in some of the branches above him. Fishing, swimming, visiting, even if it wasn't in the drinking water he was looking at an increase in cancer rates hanging on this serene scene like a fog of death. Of course, he was willing to bet it was in the drinking water too.

It took time, going upstream all day, but he figured he'd made a start of it. Not bad for a first day digging and hunting, everything said and done. Time to pack it in. He considered working his way back to where the trail had been, but looking back up in the direction that the road lay he figured he could probably bushwhack it if he was careful about it. It'd be faster overall. Get back to the car, get back to town, and get the samples to FedEx and off to the lab.

He was gasping and sweating hard by the time he pulled himself over the berm of the road. Bill tried to tell himself it wasn't that bad, but in his heart, he was thinking about how he was getting too old to be trying to bushwhack these mountains and valleys, and his head was considering what the signs of a heart attack were. Bill also tried to tell himself the road would be the easy part, although looking at it from down here, it looked to be an awfully steep road to get back to the truck.

It also wouldn't flatten out if he kept staring at it.

Sighing, Bill hoisted his equipment and started the long hike back up the empty macadam. Walking along he could see ahead of him to his left, there was some kind of settlement tucked back from the road. It looked to be the only house this far out of town, but Bill knew looks were deceiving. There could easily be all kinds of houses tucked back into the woods. He hadn't even noticed this house driving up, but you wouldn't, trees were planted right at the road to provide privacy, which was a valued commodity out here.

Leaning against the angle as he trudged uphill, Bill could see an old man was seated on the porch of the house. Bill nodded and waved at the old man. The man nodded, a suspicious look darkening his eyes at the sight of a stranger in his area. Not surprising, for the old man Bill was probably the most excitement of any kind he'd had in months.

Bill was shocked when the old man called out to him, "Y'all need a ride somewhere?"

He turned and smiled at the old man, "No, thank you though, my vehicle's at the top of the hill. I just gotta haul this stuff up to it."

The old man nodded, "Well that's good to hear, ain't sensible to be out in these har' woods after dark."

"Thanks for asking!" Bill called back to the man and started back up the hill. He had gone a little bit when he wondered, why in the hell wouldn't it be safe to be on the road of all place? He turned back to ask, only to see that the old man had vanished from his porch. It was probably nothing, and the truck wasn't getting any closer.

The next day was more of the same. Stumbling uphill along the little stream as it worked its way down the mountain. Jumping from rock to rock to avoid getting in the water, often not succeeding, taking samples at regular intervals. Most of all the work involved lots of sweating, and sometimes some swearing. Whoever thought "eggheads" hung out in air-conditioned labs polishing their diplomas had Bill's wholehearted invitation to spend a day like this with him. Science involved fieldwork, and fieldwork involved lots of cuts and buckets of perspiration.

Bill had spotted a building that he was heading towards now, it was tucked a little bit away from the stream itself up on a prominence in the valley. If he was going to guess, Bill would say it was the local water authority, the people who were responsible for providing the people here with clean water. He had seen in the records that the town hadn't had a qualified inspector in twenty years, it just couldn't pay for one. If anyone was in there at all, they were grunts who knew exactly enough to keep the machinery from exploding, and that would be about it.

Even as he made his way up the ravine the stream had carved over time, Bill could see that rust was in evidence on anything exposed and metal around the building. Somehow, he suspected that even if the men tasked with keeping the place in operation were indeed diligent with their duties, they had difficulties getting additional funds for things like paint. When money was tight with an operation, and considering the dwindling population here, it was, you could talk until you were blue in the face, but you'd never be able to get through the importance of new coat of paint just to keep the place from rusting apart around you.

Bill didn't have any real business at the facility, he'd already taken samples directly below it, and planned to take more directly above it, so he figured he'd just go right by. He didn't need to make someone feel self-conscious about doing the best they could with all that they could afford after all.

That had been the plan at least, until the shotgun roared above his head! Bill immediately ducked down, it was only good habits that ensured he didn't drop the case he was using to hold his samples in.

A voice bellowed from above, "What in the HELL you doin' down thar'?"

Bill's mind raced as he tried to come up with a suitable answer, "Going upstream?"

There was silence for a moment until the voice called back, "You gonna have to use the road, this part of the stream is private property!"

Bill considered explaining that it was actually a public works that owned the building, and not a private entity, but he decided that annoying a person with a gun by using legal nuance was a bad idea. He also considered saying that his role as a state employee superseded landowner rights but jettisoned that even faster. Instead, he went with, "Mayor Johnson said it would be all right!"

"Andy Johnson said that?"


He heard the voice say to another unseen worker, "Donny, you go in there and call Andy and see if he knows about somebody muckin' down in the river." Down to where Bill crouched, the voice yelled, "You just hold tight, mister, we'll find out one way or another in just a minute."

Bill sat huddled in the weeds, and the briars next to the river, and sweated. He sweated because it was a hot day and he had been climbing a mountainside all morning. He ESPECIALLY sweated that while he had a handshake agreement with the Mayor to do this without interference, how much of what he had been told in the man's office was going to actually be adhered to with him trapped in a ravine by a gun-toting local employee miles from anyone except a cranky old man down the road a way. Somehow, he didn't think random gunfire in this area would be considered an unusual enough occurrence to warrant a call to the police.

It had seemed an eternity before the voice called down again, "Well, Andy says you're all right. Y'all want to come up for a pop or somethin'?"

After enjoying a momentary joyous second of relief, Bill considered it, "No thank you! It'd be a real bear to get back down to the stream bed if I got out here!"

Silence reigned for a moment, before the voice called down again, "Well, good luck to you then. It'll get a bit easier to get out of there the further up you go. Make sure you get back to your car before it gets dark, ain't safe to be wandering around the woods at night!"

"It's been mentioned, but thanks, I'll just get on with it then!" Bill called back up and began trudging back up the stream bed.

A few days later Bill got a text from Pete saying simply, "Call me, use a cell."

It wasn't like Pete at all to go for privacy like that, if he even texted, he texted everything he wanted to say in hilariously long misspelled messages, or he just left a message on the phone. To specifically tell him to call him on a cell was odd.

"So, what's all the cloak and dagger?" Bill demanded as soon as he picked up.

"Well, I had to oversee the analyzing of the samples you sent me personally, almost immediately after the results came back from the first one," Pete gruffed.

"Why the hell would you do that? I thought you were allergic to the lab," Bill joked at his boss.

"Bill, this is serious as all hell, no kidding here. Remember when we started? Remember the old man always telling the story about how a testing lab wanted permission to use old mines to dump experiments, and he told 'em to go to hell?"

"Yeah, he used to love to say, 'That's when we really started acting like the environmental PROTECTION agency and not just a yes man for the mining companies,'" Bill replied quietly.

"Well one of them must not have listened, it's in all your samples in the lower part of the stream," Pete replied flatly, "You remember the one he showed us the chemical makeup of, he kept saying, "They wanted to make us a damned hillbilly Love Canal!" you remember, right?"

"Give me the sample it starts at, I'll go track it down," firmness crept into Bill's voice.

"Bill, for god's sake be careful, the only sure thing we know about that stuff is prolonged exposure causes cancer, we have no idea what else it does," Pete practically pleaded.

"Well, then I'd better hurry the hell up and find it huh? Give me the coordinates, Pete."

Bill wasn't parked that far from where he had parked his first time out here. The little streamlet that was bringing this particular pollutant was coming in below the water treatment plant. Bill was sure that when they analyzed the samples from above it, they would find other carcinogens, plenty of them, but not a potential mutagen hanging out in the poisonous mix.

Jasper Williams III had been the head of the office when Bill had first started. Used to tell the story all the time, funny though, time wiped away too many of the details. He'd just remembered the old man's satisfied smug expression when he told the story. It had turned out that Jasper's family had been union organizers locally back in the day, and there was nothing he liked more than sticking it and twisting when a big company tried to pollute in the region and he could catch them at it and do something about it. The agency lost more than they won, even then, but those moments when they got to ride in on their white horses, it pleased the old timer to no end.

In a way, how Jasper had trained them probably explained what Bill was doing here now. Pete had been trained by the old duffer too and had learned to trust the instincts of his better people in the field. Pete had also learned how to hide expenses in the paperwork so well that no secret decoder ring on earth would ever be able to prove that they hadn't been incurred during regular approved fieldwork. The two of them worked well together, just like Jasper must have envisioned.

Here and now, the company he'd said no to must have found a way around the old man and dumped it anyway. They had found an old mining town, where the mines were spent, and nobody had any money to hire the people needed to investigate something like this, anyone WITH money had left when the mines had played out. To make it better for the polluters, most of these pre-EPA mining towns had high cancer rates anyway, so the odds were the mines would get blamed. If it didn't get too far out of hand, well, it was the cost of doing business. Except here and now, today, it was out of hand, and Bill had noticed it. What he needed to find out was where, because somewhere up on that hill, out of this ravine, there was a hole in the ground containing god only knew how many leaking tubs of poison.

The route he took to get out of the stream valley was steeper on the mountainside than it was on the roadside, he had to grasp trees and dig in his boots hard for every foot he made going up. His eyes he kept pointed at the ground directly in front of him except for quick glances up to hunt for his next bit of trail. At least he only had a stripped-down version of his sample case to carry; he wouldn't even be bothering to take samples until he got further along the stream.

He was gasping for air by the time he crested the valley and hit the remains of either a logging or mining road. It was mostly overgrown now, with saplings and weeds covering it. You could only tell it existed by the slightly easier grade going up the hill, and the lack of old growth trees in its path. Still, it was a welcome respite from trying to find a route up the mountainside. It went in two directions, angling up the mountain along the streamlet he was following one way, towards town hugging along the mountainside the other. Just what his heart doctor ordered. He was willing to bet up led to an abandoned mine shaft, and he was further willing to bet that mine shaft held the poison he was looking for.

While he was standing there making plans, for the second time in a week, the silent valley erupted with the cannon blast of a shotgun near Bill! He hit the ground flat this time, too stunned to try crouching! Bill considered rolling, but decided that doing that without looking around, he had just as much chance of rolling himself right off the mountain as getting to safety. Instead, he looked up to see a figure coming around a tree and coming in his direction.

"Who are ye? What n de heel you doin' up here!" the voice of the figure bellowed at him. He could hear a drooling quality to the voice as it yelled, it sounded almost like a stroke victim.

With no point in hiding, and no ability to run from where he lay, Bill started to bring himself to his feet calling back, "Geeze Louise, it's state forest land! I was just following the stream up the mountain!"

His attempt to gain the upper hand failed as the approaching figure yelled, "Well you done followed all ye kin, now I don't wanna be shootin' nobody I don't have to, but I'll shoot the hell out of you if'n you don't turn your ass around and get the hell off this mountain!"

Bill could see the figure coming towards him and found it impossible to stifle a gasp. It was clad in dirty remnants, scraps of pelts and cloth stitched together to form a rude almost-tunic and leggings. It wasn't the attire that repulsed him though. He could see the effects of the chemicals in the parts of the, he guessed, man's uncovered body. Tumors twisted his limbs and forehead, open sores covered his arms, his fingers were so mangled and disfigured he could barely get one behind the trigger guard! Bill could see now why the man's speech sounded as it did, one cheek had rotted back, leaving his teeth fully visible where once the flesh had been!

"Dear God man! You're hurt, let me get you to a Doctor!" Bill exclaimed.

The man chuckled, a ghastly noise with part of his cheek missing, a drooly wheezing sound. "I don't figure no city doctors will do me much good, I preciate y'all's concern. Now if you would be so good, y'all can get the hell off'n my mountain."

Bill just couldn't see where he even had a choice in the matter.

To be continued ...

Article © Paul Lubaczewski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-12-31
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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