For LOST IN LOS ALAMOS Beta Readers Only - Please Do Not Share.
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It was time to deal with it. The fifth day in. Supposed to be halfway done with the project. “Fuck!” Scott thought. “I’ll never get out of here by Christmas.”
Like with so many of the other seemingly life-or-death projects, Scott came up with a myriad of ways he could put it off or not do it at all and they were quite logical, after all. He was good at that kind of thing and believed it to be a positive attribute. It was efficient. It was smart. And he just didn’t fucking want to do it. How long would it take? Was it even possible before Spring?
Scott was looking out the back bathroom window, just staring at the neck-high pile of frozen gravel. For all he knew, it might have turned into concrete by now. He had found a pick axe that Todd or someone had left in the storage shed and it laid across the pile, inert, daring him to go out and pick it up, only to be laughed at, ridiculed for his puny attempt to reduce it to even half its size.
“Where the hell is this Lee guy?” he thought. Lee had called the night before to say he would be there at 9am and that call-time had passed.
Scott had actually been shocked to hear his phone ring. When he answered and said, “Hello?”, there was silence on the other end. He said it again. Then a voice came on. It’s tone was on the high side for a man and was just a bit raspy. There was a southern-ish drawl to it and it sounded like the speaker was either taking a breath in or breathing out when he spoke. Maybe asthmatic? Not good.
“Uh, is this Scott?”
“Yes, this is Scott. Who’s calling?”
“Well, this is Lee. Todd’s friend.”
“Hi, Lee, how’re you doing?”
“About what?” Lee asked.
Scott looked at his phone, then continued.
“I mean, good to hear from you. Thanks for calling,” Scott said, as amicably as he could sound.
“Yeah! Well, I was calling to see about coming by tomorrow morning. Is that still a viable thing?”
Scott’s mind was working overtime to peg the guy. “Yes, absolutely. What time can you be here?”
“Okay... Do I need to bring any tools or supplies? I’ve got a lot of stuff.”
“Nope. Going to be pretty simple tomorrow. Just break apart this frozen gravel pile.”
Lee hesitated. “Oh...”
Scott waited for what was coming. “Is that a problem?”
“Oh, no. I don’t think so. I didn’t know it was going to be something outside, is all,” Lee hesitantly said. “I can be there by nine.”
“Yeah, okay. Maybe for a few hours only. Is the weather too cold for you to work outside?”
“No, that’s not... It’s a different issue... But it’ll be fine. I’ll see you at nine, then.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “Okay, Lee. Thanks a lot. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, uh... I’ll see you then. Nice to meet you... Scott, right?”
“Yep, same here. Bye.”
That next morning standing there, Scott took his hands off the window frame and looked at them. They were beat to shit. Would he still be able to play keyboards after this? His palms had callouses and there were scrapes and scratches that looked a little too red. Had to get some anti-bacterial cream for them. Scott looked up and out the window at movement. Large, fluffy snowflakes were falling.
“Oh, great!” Scott said aloud. “And how many times will I have said that when I finally get out of here? IF, I get out of here.”
His head lowered, Scott took a deep breath and turned to shuffle down the hallway to get his coat, gloves, and John Deere hat from the new closet he and Todd managed to get put up at the front door. He still had to line it with cedar strips from the next trip to Home Depot.
He was tired. This extended time away from the sun and beach and sea level and non-stop challenge was taking its toll. Still, Scott knew of himself as someone who could push through tough work. He wasn’t going soft yet, but he was not used to this kind of regimen when it took more out of him psychologically than physically.
The pick in his hands, he faced the road out front, waiting for any sign of this Lee Guy. The pick was heavy - heavier than he expected. By times two. Scott turned to face the pile. He man-spread his stance out, raised the big pick and swung it around behind him and then up and over his head to come smashing down on the petrified gravel about halfway down the mound. The pick head just skipped off of the frozen mass and slid down fast to the ground and around behind him, just missing his foot and shin.
“Whoa!” Scott yelled, shocked at how close he had come to taking his leg off.
He instinctively looked over to Tom’s house to see if anyone had seen his bit of foolishness. No one out over there and no drape action. Scott rested the pick head on the ground and leaned on the handle, placing a hand over his face, already tired from just swinging the damn thing. He picked up the axe again, changing his hand position, swinging his shoulders back to loosen up and twisting his body both ways at the waist.
With a smooth movement, he wound up and extended his reach to bring the pick down on top of the mound. A handful of ice and gravel exploded from the impact, showering Scott with gray shrapnel and it forced him to close his eyes. But there was a distinct crater on top of the pile.
“Holy Shit! Progress!”
But Scott set the pick down and went back into the house. In a minute, he came out with his safety goggles on. He was determined to make the gravel pile no match for him and so he attacked it, spraying frozen rocks everywhere. Swing after swing, Scott picked up a rhythm and a flow and just kept at it for at least five minutes straight. His metabolism was up, endocrine-rich, and while his lungs struggled to feed enough oxygen, his machine was built for this.
When he had stopped, he could still feel the blows reverberating in his arms and hands and he was breathing hard. He looked down the street once more, expecting to see Lee. Scott was hot and sweating already and so he took his hat and coat off, leaving the gloves on at any cost of discomfort. He actually felt pretty good. Sure, the pile had gone down only about six inches for all of that effort, but the top was spreading wider the further he went down and he knew that old saying well. “How do you eat an elephant?” he thought.
“One bite at a time!” he said out loud as he brought the pick around and down on the gravel again, getting aggressive now, using a few choice curse words to get his motivation going.
Within an hour of starting and stopping, Scott was running out of juice, sweating profusely and his hands hurt. He was halfway through the pile and amazed and embarrassed that he had dreaded this so much and put it off for so long. He was well aware, even at his young age, that seemingly impossible tasks were often completed way sooner than you had imagined before starting them. It was so hard to get to that awareness when staring at it at the start, though. But time and time again, after he had fretted and wrung his emotional hands at the thought of doing something he didn’t want to do and thought that it would take, well, just forever, if he actually got himself over his whiney rebellion and just started, he quickly found that progress was not that hard won.
Then he heard wet tires on the pavement and looked to see a small, dark blue Alfa Romeo coming down the street, the driver’s face pressed toward the windshield, bug-eye glasses glaring and trying to see out the streaked, dirty front glass, its windshield wipers expecting washer fluid, but the well was dry.
It was a gray and gloomy day. A thin cloud cover veiled the sun and it seemed much colder, even though there was a slight warming trend. And even without the sun, the leftover snow and ice on the driveway was slowly melting. The cast off gravel and ice were watery around the pile and Scott’s feet were unsteady as he stepped down on the rocky driveway.
The Alfa turned creakily into the driveway next to Scott, The google-eyed driver now peering out of the driver’s window at the pile and Scott. His window rolled down before he shut off the engine, exhaust leaking from underneath the front end, similar to Todd’s Ford.
“Wowwwww!” Google Eyes drawled out, a wide, cartoon smile on his face, making more of the thing than it was. “You sure did a job on that pile, Scott!”
“Lee?” Scott asked, then thought, “Of course, you’re Lee.” Scott was a bit miffed at Lee arriving after the job was almost done. He had been counting on Lee to take care of the gravel pile while he started on the bathroom.
“Hey, that’s my name! You’re on the ball, ol’ Scotty!” Lee said with a goofy wide grin, just before pushing his big, black glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“Yeah, turn the engine off!” Scott said, covering his nose and mouth with his flanneled arm.
“Oh, sure, sure.” Lee said, shutting the engine off, leaving his window open.
Lee proceeded to unfold himself from within the Alfa. It was a process that Scott would marvel at each time he saw it. It was like seeing some gangly alien unpack itself from a small black space behind steam pipes and electrical conduit to end up almost filling the passageway.
“Why do you do that?” Scott asked, once Lee had closed the door and was able to stand at his full six-five height, pushing his large glasses back up again with a push to the bridge. Scott imagined that Lee and Todd standing together would look like a giant-sized Laurel and Hardy.
Lee tilted his head sideways and replied, “Do what?”
“Why do you torture yourself with that small crappy car?” Scott immediately regretted asking Lee an open-ended question.
“Well, why do you like your Jeep over there?” he said, nodding to the Jeep.
“There are lots of reasons,” Scott said.
“Let me tell you the reasons I put up with this ‘crappy car’,” Lee began, not taking offense, but instead the taking the opportunity to launch his soliloquy, his big, skinny hands spread before him.
In the end, Scott had stood there through almost five minutes of why the Alfa Romeo was perfect for Lee and why he put up with having to stuff his body into the driver’s seat like a pretzel. A lot of it had to do with the Alfa being an inconspicuous target for the aliens and keeping low on Lab Security’s radar.
“But it’s got a white racing stripe down the middle of it!” Scott came back, amused and going along. “Wouldn’t a beater Ford Taurus be better for keeping a low profile?”
“Oh, no, my friend. That’s what they’d expect. With this little disguise, they don’t even see me if I’m out on the street with it,” Lee replied. “And!” he pointed his index finger in the air, “And, I love the fact that Alfa engines were used in World War II fighters. That’s right! I used to be into Saab for the same reasons, but the guys flying around up there got wise to my Saab because it was red. They’re kind of like bulls, and get incensed with the sight of red. Maybe they came from a red planet or who knows what...” And on he went like that. Scott was speechless. Then Lee decided he was done.
“Here, let me give you a hand with that.” Lee reached out for the pick axe and Scott handed it to Lee.
“Now we’ll see what I can do with this thing,” Lee said, making a big deal of getting his stance ready to take a whack at the remaining pile that was starting to thaw. After he was set, Lee began to bring the pick back like he was at a carnival and was about to whack the block to take the weight all the way up to the bell.
“Now that I got you to the easy part...” Scott thought, watching Lee and waiting to catch him if the pick took him backwards with his swing.”
“Heyyyyyy-yah!” Lee shouted with his first swing and blow. It seemed to energize him and Scott was surprised to see the string bean attack Gravel Mountain with such force and, what, almost rage? Lee yelled with every single swing and Scott thought he’d have to go inside to get away from that.
He decided to stay out there until the pile was decimated, just to be safe. When Lee had chopped apart the last bit of it down to only clumps remaining, sparks flying when the pick hit through to the concrete, he set the pick down and with one hand on the axe handle and one hand on his hip, he posed for Scott.
“Didn’t.” Breath. “Think.” Breath. “I could do it.” Breath. “Did you?” Lee asked, visibly spent, barely able to catch his breath.
“Didn’t think you’d wait till it was almost done to show up?” Scott thought. “That’s great! Got enough to gas left to scoop all of this up and take it back to fill those dog holes in the back yard we looked at? Or do you need a break?”
Lee looked up into the sky for any sign before he replied. “Sure thing. As long as I’m not outside too long, it should be safe,” Lee said, bending over at the waist to catch his breath. “We got some good cloud cover.”
Scott caught himself half-shaking his head just like his dad used to do and stopped it, vowing to not do that to Lee again. Lee didn’t actually see Scott do it, but Scott wanted to end that particular generational curse.
“One more job off the list,” Scott thought, once he was back inside. He knew there were so many left that he could not bring himself to look at, or even think of the list - only the next one. And then the next. He was nearing a place that if things didn’t start going faster and there were more surprises waiting to pop out, he just might not have enough of whatever it would take to go on. But this was the tricky part. Once he had gotten the place so far, he was very worried that he would not be able to leave until it was done. He just wouldn’t be able to consciously waste all his efforts. And Betty’s money. Oof. It would be like his own little Vietnam, or Afghanistan, where he lost body parts and friends and resources and bled out until he had no more to give, only to end up pulling out and abandon the place to going the way it was going anyway before he had arrived, instead of investing in success.
He surveyed the kitchen where he stood, both hands on the countertop that still needed the corners rounded, his critical eye catching every nick and mis-joined seam, grout that was too thin here and over the tile there. Scott thought back to the first day when he couldn’t put his hands on the counter because there was no counter. That was something, at least. Over against the outside wall, Todd had piled the odds and ends of wood pieces he intended to patch together a kitchen island from. How that mishmash of wood could end up being a kitchen centerpiece, Scott could not imagine.
Scott could imagine himself growing old and decrepit in this space, trapped in time forever like the Ground Hog Day movie, redoing every project over and over, Todd sabotaging his work while Scott was asleep or out buying even more supplies. He would end up having to marry Bobbie from the hardware store and she would come to live at the house, putting tacky pink and yellow curtains in the windows and Raggedy Ann kitchen towels on the oven door handle and then there would be fat little babies and Scott himself would have gone to seed, a spare tire for the rug rats to stand on when he was in his Lazy Boy recliner, feet up and fast asleep after a big Christmas dinner with Bobbie’s family. They would take over the house and their corny puns would flood their conversations until Scott was forced to take his own life by jumping off the ice-covered roof in the back, changing his mind at the last minute but slipping on the ice and sliding off the roof anyway, only to be impaled and dead on the pick axe that Todd had left in the back yard.
“Okay, yeah!” Scott spoke out. He laughed at himself loudly, a little too maniacally for his liking. He was quickly loosing it.