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When our boss told us to go dump these canisters of frack waste down by this old creek, we didn’t think much of it because, well, we’d done it dozens of times before, and neither I nor Victor had ever had any problems at the site.
“’ey Rye-Bread,” I remember him yelling.
I peered back at him carrying the steel tanks, looking sandwiched between enormous slices of bread.
“Point that fuckin’ light over here or just take this shit there yourself.”
“Sorry, Vic. I just almost slipped is all. I had to—”
“I don’t give a shit, Rye. I can’t make out any of these vines in the dark. Especially not over these damn jugs.”
I started hiking backwards, keeping the light on Victor as his work boots tore through sticks, clover, and underbrush. Somehow, I seemed to trample a lot fewer plants than Vic, but I figured that was just because it was honestly some fuckin’ exercise to lug those steel behemoths without any trails or moonlight to guide you.
“I don’t tend to complain about the weather, Rye, but this shit is fuckin’ frigid. If what we were doing weren’t illegal, I’d file a complaint about these working conditions.”
“Cry more, ya’ infant.” I wagged the beam of the flashlight in his face. “It never even snows here.”
“Yeah, but it feels like it’s about to. It’s fuckin’ bullshit. Inhumane, forcin’ us out here to get molested by the forest.”
After minutes of backing up between gnarled trees and broken boulders, I could hear the creek shushing us through a tangle of brush.
“Dammit, Ryan, point that fuckin’ ...”
Then my calf backed into something heavy and warm, and it threw my balance and flashlight ass-over-teakettle into the slopping mud. The thing shrieked and hoofed away.
My jeans were beyond soaked.
“Ryan. Ryan shit, what was, where— what the fuck is goin’ on?”
I slicked my hair out of my face and twisted around, searching for the flashlight.
“I don’t know, Vic. It was like a, I don’t know, like a baby hippo or something.”
“What in King Tut’s crispy cunt would a baby fucking hippo be doing out here?”
“I don’t know, okay? Maybe it was a coyote or something. A stray dog or, I don’t know, OK? Can you help me out of this fuckin’ mud?”
I spotted the narrow columns of light growing out from the brushes, and I stretched my hand out through the darkness to grab it.
A jolt of pain sent my arm curling back into my chest. I strained to focus my eyes, and ran my fingers over the wound. Three long thorns still stuck out from my hand: one in the webbing between my index and middle fingers; one in my palm, in the meat of my thumb; and the last underneath my index fingernail.
“Come on, Ryan. Quit dickin’ around. Get your pussy out the dirt before another pair of fuckin’ gnats fly up my nose.”
“I’m coming, Vic. Give me a second once in a fuckin’ while.” I pulled the thorn from my thumb. “Shit.”
“Well you don’t have to get an attitude with me Misses Pantyruffles.” A tank slipped from Vic’s arm, but he stopped it with his knee, and was able to heave it back up into his control.
I plucked the thorn from the webbing of my fingers and flicked it at him as I stood up.
“What do you think happened to that thing you tripped on, Rye?”
“I don’t, I don’t know, Vic.” I slid the thorn out from my under my fingernail and my throbbing hand dripped into the mud.
A tunk, tunk tunk rattled off in the distance.
“What the fuck was that?” Victor exclaimed.
I stomped at the clawing burrs around the flashlight with my work boots.
“That’s just me. I’m trying to get the light. Hold on.”
“No, wait up, I’m serious. That didn’t sound like anything out of nature.”
“Well, I’m wearing steel-toed boo—“
Tunk. Tunk. Tunk.
“There, that. That fuckin’ sound.”
“I don’t know, man. Maybe it’s just—“
“Shut up. Shut the fuck up.”
I had never heard Victor’s voice tremble so much before.
One more kick freed my flashlight from the thorns, and I grabbed it with my unpierced hand.
“Well, hurry up,” I said. “Pour out that shit into the creek and let’s go.” I aimed the flashlight back onto his feet and the path around the tall shrubs.
“Fine, fine.” He took a deep breath and stepped forward with a steel tank in each arm.
I thought I heard Victor laugh, and I asked him what he thought was so funny. He picked up his pace and said, “I don’t want make you panic or nothin’, bro, but that wasn’t me.”
Seconds later Victor was to the creek, and pouring out globs of this sludge that smelled like a gas station sunk into outhouse pumpings. I tried not to watch it all shimmer and foam in the stream, or to think about where it might be floating down to.
I heard the laugh again from behind a wall of trees, but this time I could tell it wasn’t a laugh, and it wasn’t that metallic clanking, either. The grunting and mumbling thing out there was whatever I had tripped on earlier.
I scrambled over to Vic’s second canister and twisted off the cap. I lifted the bottom above the spout and drained it all out except for the stickiest clumps still congealed inside.
“Alright, Vic. I’ll hold this one on the way—”
Tunk, tunk, tunk clamored out closer than ever before.
I shone my light up the creek to the source of the noise.
A figure in layers of dusty coats and a wide-brimmed hat clanked a rusted, dented baseball bat against the bleached skull of a deer buck by the edge of the water.
Tunk. Tunk. Tunk.
Victor’s canister fell from his hands into the creek, and the sound made me flinch and turn my light towards him.
“Go, dammit. Let’s get the fuck out of here.” Victor grabbed my sleeve. “Drop the fuckin’ tanks. Leave ‘em.”
A guttural whurr, whurr, whurr charged at us from our escape route ahead, and as I flung my light around to it, four curled white horns blitzed through plumes of upkicked soil and pounced into Victor’s thighs and stomach. Each tusk impaled through meat and viscera, and tore out through Vic’s other side.
He was speechless as the animal thrashed its horns around inside him to rip free, as if Vic’s nervous system itself was still in disbelief.
I spun around and shone my light on a sweeping grin sparkling out from underneath a wide-brimmed hat.
My knuckles shattered on impact against the rusted steel bat, and my flashlight spun to the ground.
Victor’s face was illuminated now, and I could see the creature was boring its tusks into Victor’s cheeks and forehead.
“Ryan,” he coughed out alongside a lung’s capacity of blood. “Go.” He heaved the creature off his chest. “Get out of here.”
A rusted blur then dropped like a guillotine into the beam of light and cratered through Victor’s rib cage.
I leaped up and whipped my legs ahead of me, but as I fled I was compelled to look back to Victor, just in time to see those four tusks plunge directly into his neck with that rusted bat still lodged into his heart, shrouded in electric torchlight.