a sample chapter from Exposed!

by Mike Heffernan

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  S I L V E R T H O U G H T




Utterly done in, everything ached. Francis sat at the small square dinner table heavily, the crisp fall air following him into the kitchen from outside like a familiar guest, a neighbor, carrying with it the smell of exhaust and woodchips. "What have you got on?" he asked his wife, June, putting his oily saws up on the linoleum placemat-she'd curse him royally if he stained her tablecloth.

        Facing the sink, she washed her hands, dried them in her apron. She said, turning, "Vegetables and salt-beef. There's a bread pudding put up to have with your tea."

        She brought him his supper, fed him. Watching his jaw chew in slow, deliberate movements, his eyes flat like dull light bulbs: "My son, what's wrong? You look bothered."

        A deep sigh came up from the bottom of his gut. "They've closed her down."

        "Closed what down?"

        "Everything, maid. Everything. We'll be put out before the winter."

        "Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus." She got up from the table, holding her face in her hands, pacing in tight circles. "We're done in then, Francis."

        Staring at his saws, he hated them, wanted them smashed. He wished that inside the greasy yellow boxes, at the part where the metal latches clasped tightly around his wrists, that he had hands again, that he'd never given them up to begin with. "They called us into the shed first thing and told us. The company's hauling up to Labrador. Didn't say why, just that we're finished up. Cheaper up there, I suppose, like everything. They're taking it all with them, too, everything-even the harbor. They're leaving us bare."

        June took several small splits from the dusty wood-box and fed them to the stove, watched them get eaten up, transfixed. As if she'd forgotten everything else: "We're done, my son."

        "We'll have to move down around the cape, somewhere in town, maybe. That's all I can see."

        She gasped. "What, the house?"

        "A few of the boys were saying that's best. Haul her up and put her on a barge. Who can afford to start up new here? Not us, by Christ. I'm too old for that. And even if we do stay, there won't be a soul left."

        "They can't do it. They can't. It's criminal, Francis. Criminal. But thank Jesus we got no youngsters…"

        He looked at his arms. Thick and muscled, veins snaking over tight skin, larger than the rest of him, they ached from lugging his saws around. "I can't go blaming them now."

        For a moment, they were quiet and listened to the wind wail and rip at the storm door, the aluminum frame rattling.

        In one smooth motion, Francis undid the latches, slid his arms out from inside the saws and unhooked the cords using his teeth. He got up and placed them on the porch mat. His calloused stumps were sore. Several new blisters had formed, which were filled with fluid and ready to burst; they never did heal right. But June would soak and bandage them later, like always.

        "There's a meeting down at the club the night after next. A few of the lads said a man from the government will be there to talk resettlement. Are we going?"

        He noticed she seemed to be sinking down into the linoleum canvas of the floor, her knit sweater bunching up around the shoulders. "Better than not going, I suppose."

        "Get us a cup of tea then, maid. I'm worn down from the goings on."

* * *

        The bar was filled with stale cigarette smoke, dour and desperate faces. Hard, stern eyes stared up towards the company men and the government representative lined up at the front like the Last Supper.

        "We wish that there were positions for you in Labrador," the short bald man said, seated to the far left, his voice squeaking, nervous. He was sweating, too, carefully adjusting his glasses every few seconds with his thumb and forefinger. "But I'm afraid that just isn't possible. However, the severance package we're offering you, we feel, is fair."

        The government man to his right, small in his cheap tweed jacket, hair uncut around the ears, nodded.

        The town barked in disgust, loud and raucous. Tools shot forward accusatorily-saws, clamps, drills-slammed down, rattling beer glasses, sending some to the thin and worn carpet that was dotted with salt-stains.

        Standing, waving his arms to hush the crowd, the mayor said, "Keep her down, boys, and let the man speak. You'll get your chance."

        Knit hat gripped tightly in his fist-one of the few fists still left in the town-choking the life from the hat, one of the older men stood up, beating it off the edge of the table every few words, like an exclamation point. "Lord Christ, you've left us to the sharks."

        "Please, calm down, sir," the small government man said, rubbing his hairy nose.

        "We'll be a town of paupers and rags! And what are some of us going to feed our youngsters with, hey? I'm sure yours will have their bellies full, though, won't they? Won't they!" His wife, frail and wrinkled, looking beaten, defeated, sat him down.

        "And with the harbor," coughing, Hairy-nose started, staring at his hands, as if they held some answer as they danced with one another on the table, "although the company will move it north, the government has already begun plans to replace it within the next five years."

        Someone shouted something unintelligible from the back of the bar, high, piercing, slurred: drunk-talk. The crowd turned, hushed for a moment. A man with cant hooks for hands, arms around his wife's shoulders, leering side to side, snorted. "That there's the nail in our coffin. We've got no chance. None. God knows the souls of men, sir, and yours is a goddamned rocky one."

        Francis was there in the far-right corner, listening, heart sinking, taking long draws from his cigarette, bringing the smoke deep into his lungs, letting the ashes fall to his lap. "You think we'll be left here in five years? There won't be a dog on the streets in five years. And even if we did stay, eh, who's going to haul in what we need to get by? No one from the city, I tell you that. It won't be worth their time; too expensive. If they can't bring it up the bay, like that man said, we're done in."

        The men at the front listened, shifting their feet and hands in a nervous two-step.

        Francis held up his saws. His voice shook. "So this is all for nothing then, is it? Tell me it's for something."

        June, next to him, touched his leg. Poor man. Can he even remember what it was like to have hands? Can he remember what they looked like, how to even use them?

        "And it's not just me," Francis continued, eyes wet. "The whole town gave up a hell of a lot to keep you running. Now all we get is a kick in the hole. You're thieves, simple as that!"

        Applause roared through the small bar.

        As if passing sentence, the five men rose, pushed their chairs in and put on their coats. They wanted out, fast, before things got ugly, confused. "On behalf of the company, we'd like to offer our sincere thanks. Over the years, you've all been model-"

        "Sincere thanks, eh? Eh!" Winny Murphy, old and back-bent, arms and legs crooked with arthritis, on her feet, her toothless mouth slid into a gummy, hate-filled snarl. "You see these?" She held up a pair of gray, worn spikes, dirty, the leather mottled, soles cracked, white fiberglass prosthetics still attached, rusted buckles hanging like umbilical cords where they had once been attached to a knee. "They were my mister's. You poisoned him, you did. He had them for less than a year then did away with himself. I got nothing-same as they'll get."

        She threw them towards the front, hideous things, looking like real legs, legs severed at the knee.

        The crowd gasped.

        Hairy-nose turned away, hands covering his eyes.

        Winny started to the front, gripping chairs for support. "Here, they're poison, like the company." She turned to the crowd. "And you know what you're supposed to do with poison, eh? Cut it out. Too late for that, though. It's too late."

* * *

        The party line was buzzing, the operators dizzy with reconnects. Two-hour waits for outgoing calls. Nothing could get in from the city.

        Conversations were filled with venom and hate, but no tears. The women of the town, the wives, they were past that.

        An open line. Two of them on: June and her cousin's wife, Maud.

        "He's already at it. He'll be sat at that television staring at his saws. Pains the nerves. I feel right helpless." June was tired, and the skin around her eyes looked like deep bruises. She wanted to sleep hours ago, her future, their future, a dark and oppressive burden.

        "Frank's the same," Maud said. Her husband had agreed to let them have his legs. The decision haunted them regularly. "I'll find him out there in the shed with the bottle to his head almost polished off. He's too proud to drink in the house."

        Voice cracking, June: "We'll all be finished soon enough, sure. They'll have the haulers in at the harbor in a few days; lumber's already gone. Only a matter of time, now. Last ship with supplies is due in Tuesday, I heard. Have they come up with something else?"

        "Truck will be in once a month, not every other week."

        "Times will be tight, girl."

        June: "Tight, yeah…" She had watched the news and had seen the segment on them. Audio inserts insinuating a mild contempt for the small community, like what they were left with was a blessing, a sacrament: the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. The reporter was from the out-ports, accent bleached. "Wouldn't know now, but we were all sitting home, waiting for our checks. That's the way the crowd in town likes to see it." Lately, she kept revisiting her mother's death in her head, something she hadn't done since her adolescence. She'd dreamt it, accompanied by a soundtrack of screaming. Her mother's splayed legs, midwife hunched down between them, blood reaching up past her elbows. Other women standing around the kitchen clutching at each other, their faces stiff with concern. Standing in the doorway, June, a child, watched between their legs, anxious to see her new brother, or sister. Then the baby was free, covered in blood and bits of membrane, but limp and quiet-so still-her mother pushing out the placenta, crying mad for her baby. Fast forward. Then her mother was still, head tilted to the side, staring, eyes wide and vacant. The midwife had something wrapped in a clean blanket, something small. She said something, something about the doctor. The doctor was away, in town, and unable to come. But he knew she'd be ready any day. It was at that point that she woke, disoriented, confused, angry. Filled with anger.

        Maud: "Heard there's a bonfire planned. Mister's been going on about it."

        "Where? I haven't heard nothing from Francis."

        "The boys, they're burning their tools," she said, hoping that as they watched the fleshy plastic blacken, twist and melt, they'd all find their true selves again. "But I don't think much good will come out of it."

        "Neither do I, maid."

        "They should take their tools to that barge, before the job gets done."

        "Yes, take them to something, I'd say."

        For a moment, a silence came over the line, the faint white hum of static.

        "The three of them down to the club to start with," June said contemptuously. "By Christ, be done with the whole lot."

* * *

        The house was quiet: radio off, small television on the counter muted, news anchor mouthing the weather. An empty flask of rye was left on the table, a drop unfinished, left in the glass next to it. The heat was turned down. She touched the wood stove: cold, unlit, probably dead for hours. "Francis?" June called out. Her voice echoed.

        No response.

        He was asleep, up in bed, surely. "Francis?"

        In the living room, two small patches of oil were on either side of his recliner, which looked like black holes. He'd been sitting there, drinking, his saws leaking drips onto the floor.

        Anxiety began to creep out from her gut in webs.

        She went upstairs. Frost had collected on the windows, thick. She could see her breath, icy.

        The bed was made, not slept in, the blankets still tight and tucked beneath the mattress.

        "Francis?" she yelled.

        The rough cough of his saws choking to life came from outside, in the shed. It sounded like he couldn't haul on the cords, too drunk, too sluggish to snap them out from his hips where they were attached at his belt. Then a loud buzzing roar ripped through the house as they came to life, hungry animals.

        June dashed down the stairs.

        Accidents were not unknown to him, and his leathery arms were roadmaps of ragged scars and skin grafts. He was clumsy when he drank, thought he still had hands, thought he was still a young man and the saws were some dream, some unreality.

        The shed door was open, smoke billowing out in a greasy trail of iron grey, stinking of exhaust.

        "Francis, Jesus!" At that moment, the image of her father came to her, that image of meeting him at the harbor when he came home from Europe, dirty and tired from two weeks at sea, skinny, wasted, and sick from a bout of influenza. His face looked slack, dark, shadows hiding in the lines around his eyes and mouth. She'd barely recognized him. He'd died later that year, from a broken heart, not from the influenza. The war had never left him.

        That was her husband: defeated.

        Francis was on the large stump he cut junks on, tiny flecks of vomit clinging to his beard. Drunk, his arms were crisscrossed, swaying some, elbows resting on his lap and about to bring the spinning metal teeth down on his wrists, to do away with himself, to have it all over with.

        She grabbed him by the shoulder. "My son, what in the name of Christ are you at? What?"

        Head low, too low: "I'm not worth much. Not much at all. Best leave me to it. You'll be better off."

        She slapped him, hard, jerking his head to the side.

        Ashamed, he looked up at her.

        And that was it for her-the look, not the slap. It was a look no man should ever have, a look reserved for widows. It made her feel weak, abused.

        The saws slowed, gurgled once, twice, and coughed out. Francis undid the latches. Between the tools he could no longer use-hammer, bench saw, level-two large hooks were nailed high above his chipped workbench, beneath them dark and distinct shapes, like A-bomb flash burns on the sidewalk. He hung up his saws. "They're there for good now, my dear," he mumbled.

        "Good thing," she sighed, wrapping her arms around his thick, square shoulders. "It's been too much for you lately. Go in the house and sit down, and I'll fix you a plate of something. We'll watch the news."

        "I've got that to go to tonight, down the cove. I don't want to be going. But they all look up to me."

        He saw something in her eyes that wasn't there before, ever-hatred, maybe…?-like a skinny, devilish beast, lurking, starved. "Yes, you'd best. It'll be good for you."

* * *

        The fog had come in, swallowing faces, erasing features, blotting out the sky, the sun-sea fog, thick and soupy, the color of dirty silver dollars, smelled and tasted of saltwater. Two dozen men were there, all loggers, men with tight, dour faces with coarse beards and shaggy eyebrows that curved down in consternation, stoking-caps that were smeared with the grease of work. Standing around in a semicircle, some in wheelchairs, on crutches, others with no arms or hands, like Francis, they piled their tools-their limbs-and doused them with gasoline. It was a large pile, a heap of fiberglass and metal latches, steel teeth and hooks, arms and legs poking out.

        The harbor, behind them, down past the grassy bluff and over the short cliff, growled and churned. The wind had come in, bringing ocean spray. The fog carried sounds, too: machines taking the harbor, placing the dismantled pieces on barges. These sounds would be familiar to them soon, the sounds of houses being placed on barges and towed out to sea. They would be painful, torturous sounds.

        The final transport ship would be here soon: their last rites.

        "I'm here to support what you're doing," Francis said, stumps buried deep in his jacket pockets, "but I won't put me saws in there. Me and the wife decided. They're all we've got, boys." As a young man, deep in the dark years of the depression, there had been a hollowness to his soul, an emptiness, contagious; the whole town, the province, was infected with it. His saws had filled that hole. He thanked the company for that, but he hated them now, more than he thought he could ever hate. And still, his wife, June, hated even more. Goddamn that company. Goddamn them! Spitting out the words, like poison. That's our harbor out there, and they'll just walk away with her and leave us with nothing!

        A voice called over from the other side of the heap, "That's fine, Francis, boy."

        Jack Trask, a camp bull, there next to him, patted his shoulder. "You're a good man. Damn good man. Don't worry."

        A final splash of gasoline, a baptism, the flick of a lighter, and the pile ignited in a flash. Dirty black smoke, choking and toxic, billowed up. Flames licked the plastic, quickly melting it. Cracks and pops came out of it like fireworks.

        Someone pointed and screamed at the conflagration, cursing the company, the bastards.

        A horn blew, once, twice, a bellowing horn, a death call. Their death call. It was the last barge, early, down from Labrador, coming in from around the bluff. But the fog was too thick to see through, erasing everything.

* * *

        Just past dawn, the sun was not fully risen.

        The tools were a melted mess, charred and sludge-like, almost flat, indistinguishable from one another and no longer bubbling and coughing flames. There were just a few of the men left; the rest had gone, to continue drinking somewhere else, to forget. Empty beer boxes littered the ground like debris from an explosion. Francis was there, sitting, smoking. The fog was thinning, too, rolling out in thin wisps. The machines had stopped. It was quiet, and no one spoke as they listened to their own strangled breaths.

        Francis stood, starting for the cove. "I'm heading down the way to see her off."

        A few followed him. The rest stayed, staring at the last embers of flame.

        At the bottom, out past the wharf, where it disappeared, they could see the outline of two ships poking out of the soupy grey: hull, bridge, the massive crane, but nothing else, just vague shapes: ghost ships. For years, this had been a hub of activity. Trucks would cart in timber from inland to be shipped upriver. Logs would carpet the river, men-chaulks for feet-dancing a strange dance, twisting and turning quickly, directed them with pike-arms. It was dead now and devoid of life-motors shut down, lights off, and the whole lot inoperative.

        Standing on the beach, scanning the bay, the rocks slid and repositioned themselves beneath their feet. The wharf would be gone in a few hours, history, memory, quickly and efficiently dismantled and loaded onto the barge.

        Flocks of sea birds were out, cawing, circling low, diving down. It was common enough to shoot them while jigging, to load up a .12-gauge and blast them right out of the sky. Francis saw himself doing this when he was young, gripping the barrel while he stood in his boat, an explosion of feathers spiraling down.

        Paul Russell, on crutches, trying to steady himself, peered forward, listened to the fifteen- and twenty-footers knock off the wharf with the steady rhythm of the waves. It was a familiar sound, like logs knocking off one another, like the tick of a clock. "She's quiet out there."

        "Quiet, yeah," from behind him. Francis couldn't tell who; they all seemed to speak in the same dead, flat tone.

        Francis went to the edge of the beach. There, moving in the tide, swaying with the driftwood and garbage, was a piece of cloth, dotted with patterns of tight circles of lavenders, reminding him of a lady's Sunday dress.

        Still a little pissed, he wondered, What is that there for?

        Instinctively, he bent and touched it. Reeled back. Fell against the rocks, face white and slack like dead skin. A grunt of pain: "Almighty Jesus."

        Fingers-white, bloated, pecked at-clutched the cloth and poked out of the froth of the water. The tide drew back slowly and revealed an arm, a man's arm, skin ragged and hacked off where it had once met a shoulder, a cheap digital watch still around the wrist, ready to snap.

        The wind blew, and, for a moment, the fog peeled back in places, revealing portions of the bay. The water was littered with limbs, dozens of them: arms, legs, hands, feet, bobbing like so many buoys, still wearing sleeves of shirts and legs of pants, rings, feet budging against laced shoes and green rubber boots, reminding them all of the cold deck. Patches of gulls floated amongst them, getting fat. He wished he had his rifle.

        He'd seen corpses before, they all had: split, sawed, crushed. But not like this. No, not like this.

        Francis stood up, put his mouth to his front pocket where he kept his cigarettes, like he'd done a thousand times, like he'd learned to do with no hands, like June had showed him. Shaking badly, unsteady: "Jesus, someone give me a light."

        Jim Karate, eyes like dinner plates, head following the motion of the water: "Oh, dear God. They've had an accident. Francis, you've got the best legs. Get up over the hill, man. Get some help down here!"

        Starting out to the wharf, Francis said, "Don't be foolish. Get out in the boats before the fog lifts. Forget the help. There's no need. We'll use the nets to haul them in."

        "Think there might be someone alive in the water?"

        The reality of it all had bit deep into him. "Christ, no one's alive in the water. They're all dead, sure. Don't be stupid; someone did them in. They've got themselves killed."

* * *

        Stinking of saltwater and smoke, still tasting the water, Francis came home. June was at the stove, hovering over it, cooking. He was tired, more tired than he thought he could ever get, which reached deep into the fiber of his muscles and seemed to expand like a balloon. He sat at the table. "Get us a cup, will you, dear?" he asked her, thinking of the men casting sprawling nets and the continuous dead thud of limbs as they hauled in pieces of men, half-men, bits of men, torsos of men, while he worked the motor. The boat had quickly filled up, and they burned them on the beach, erasing and reducing it all to ash.

        Before he went into the house, he had gone to the shed. His saws were there, hung up. He knew them like any other man knows his hands, each bump, blemish. He had touched them expecting to find them warm, out of gas, the blades worn just a little from cutting. But they were the same as he had left them, as he remembered them. She'd cleaned them well, June.

        "Are they done?" she asked.

        Someone did them in. "Done?"

        "The company, boy."

        "I don't know. Didn't bother to go down. No point, I suppose."

        She brought him his cup. Her hair up in tight curlers, he saw her forehead was wind-burned, her lips and skin drawn. And there, in the creases of her knuckles, raw from scrubbing, like dark laugh lines, fault lines, were faint grease stains, oil stains, not unlike those that were now permanent stains on the skin of the men he had worked with, men with hands. He had never scrutinized any part of her before like he did now. Maybe, when they were young, when he lusted for her, he had, but now it was as if he were seeing her for the first time. Her fingers, though slender, had been worked hard, ground down and abused: nails chipped, knuckles callused. These hands had been worked-no resemblance to kitchen hands.

        She brought the cup to his lips, and he took a sip, testing it. He thought of watching her sleep, of her sweating and turning. She was dreaming of her mother again, he knew. She was a good woman, the best. But he wondered, in all that goodness, if maybe those dreams had brought on a personal darkness. "Out in the garden this morning?" He could not hate her if she lied to him now.

        "Garden…?" She held up her hands, her dirty hands. He looked at her face, her wide, intelligent face, her lovely face. Her eyes seemed to hang, tired, exhausted, and for a second he thought he saw fear and confusion take form. "Yes, I was out digging. I should've gotten to it before. But now is better than never. Besides, I didn't want you out there, the way you are lately."

        Francis held her hand, kissed it. "Maid, you do too much already. Too much, my dear."




Copyright © 2007 Mike Heffernan

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Mike Heffernan: Born and raised in the historic harbor city of St. John's, Newfoundland, the oldest city in North America, Mike Heffernan has been poking his nose around in the darker side of the human condition for as long as he can remember. He thinks he can pinpoint his baptism in blood to primary school, when his cousin subjected him to an almost daily dose of a deadly cocktail of horror movies.

Mike later cut his teeth on such nastiness as Barker, Skipp and Spector, Romero and King. Writing since his adolescence, he put his creative endeavors on hold to study German history, but came back to horror with a mean vengeance. It's been full-tilt-boogie for some time now, and it seems to be panning out. His books include Aim for the Head, A Dark and Deadly Valley, and Exposed!

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