I think I'm turning into stone. I don't know if it's a normal symptom of this type of work. I don't know about these sorts of things. And I can't stop; I don't know when they'll be back. They said I would be contacted. I never talked to anyone in charge. I used to be in charge at the bookstore. Before the problem with Judy.
Simon, Judy had yelled, you spend more time at that bookstore than at home!
But I have to Judy, I had told her, There's so much to do since everyone quit.
Why did they quit, Simon? Judy had asked, What did you do?
I didn't do anything, I had explained. All they said was that I acted tyrannical. Can you believe that Judy? I asked less of them than I ask of myself.
Simon, we've talked about this, she had said. Not everyone is like you.
What does that mean, Judy? I had said. I need you to be on my side; you're the only one left.
It was a mining job. Just a mining job. Very different, but I needed a change. When I walked in for my interview, men in white and black uniforms blindfolded me, handcuffed me and put me in the back of a van. I could hear some others breathing or asking questions while the person to my right trembled slightly. Somebody, I assume it was a man in a white and black uniform, dug the barrel of his rifle into my ribs, whispering, Keep your head down or Keep quiet or Stop acting scared, this is what you wanted.
There were a lot of us, I think. When they removed my blindfold, I stood with some other cowering men (there may have been a woman, perhaps named Jess or Jessie that I may have seen or fallen in love with) in a hazy cavern. More men in white and black uniforms with large rifles and gas masks stood guarding the entrances. The ruins of an old barracks hunched in the corner, trying to act unimportant. They gave us donuts and told us to sit on our hands. I coughed a lot and made a mess.
Come home, Judy had whispered over the phone. Just come home Simon. We can get you some help.
But I couldn't. Not then. I needed to finish my work.
Please Simon, she had said.
The Mine Operator, a big man with a gas mask, notebook, a frantically ticking meter, and a helmet, told us we were drilling a system of tunnels and gave each of us a number and a device that drilled and hammered and rattled and sawed and sputtered and spun and coughed and screamed. (But I have to Judy, I had told her, there's so much to do since everyone quit.) For liability purposes, we had to wear a lot of safety equipment.
For liability purposes, the Mine Operator told us on the first day, you need to wear this vest, these steel goggles over these plastic goggles, this helmet with a headlamp (always keep spare batteries for it), this paper mask, these boots, these earmuffs over these earplugs, and these pants. You can't wear anything else because it will interfere with the electro-synaptic impulses of the device.
What about socks, someone asked. But they took him behind the ravaged barracks and beat him with a rubber hose. None of us wore socks.
Number 70051, the Mine Operator motioned to me after they had given us our new safety equipment and burned our old clothes.
You can call me Simon, I said.
70051, he continued while handing me a walkie-talkie, proceed to Meta Tunnel and begin drilling. You will be contacted.
Drilling was already in progress when I reached the site. I wandered through hazy tunnels and dead ends, the device growing heavy and my new safety equipment chafing my sensitive places. I picked a spot in the line of drillers next to someone, maybe Jess or Jessie, and squeezed the red triggers on both handles of the device. (Simon, Judy had yelled, you spend more time at that bookstore than at home!) Through the earplugs and earmuffs, I heard it howl with pleasure. It chewed into the stone face, spitting rocks back into my steel goggles, protective vest and bare arms while exhaling malignant clouds of dust that scorched my face and burrowed into my lungs. Great drops of oil rolled down its flanks as the device heaved and clawed its way deeper into the stone--panting and growling and occasionally whooping when it found a soft vein.
When our walkie-talkies finally told us to return to camp, I leashed and muzzled the device with exhausted arms before dragging it back through the labyrinth. (I didn't do anything, I had explained, All they said was that I acted tyrannical.) We resembled some infernal army: our arms crisscrossed with dirty cuts from the flying stones, safety armor and faces monochrome with stone dust, hands coated in blue-black oil, brandishing our devices against the clicking and hissing things lurking in the darker corners of the tunnels.
I had worked well at the bookstore. Bought the space from a failing antique dealer and called it Simon's Books. Judy used to complain that I always came home covered in ink, that my skin always felt dry and papery, that I always spoke too softly. Then she used to complain that I never came home at all. But I had work to do. No one I hired ever understood how to work well.
When we returned to the main cavern, the men in white and black uniforms chained us together for our safety and led us to the barracks. The roof had buckled and collapsed but the walls seemed stable, if a little warped from the yellow haze sulking in the cavern's upper reaches. Our quarters were long and narrow, our cots uncomfortable. They told us to go to bed, poking us with their rifles for emphasis.
What about showers, someone asked. But they dragged him over to the putrid latrines and shot him. None of us took showers.
I didn't sleep well that night. There were too many people coughing, yelling, and scheming. Too many memories. I never feel that anymore. These days my past billows away with the dust when I drill. Even Jessie is just an assortment of blue eyes, black hair, a slightly crooked nose, and maybe some freckles scattered across my mind like a handful of jigsaw pieces. (Though I do remember how wide her mouth opened when she laughed. And how Mark and Danny and she and I would play hearts in the barracks at night.)
The dust and oil settled over time since I never used my daily water ration to shower, spreading out and down deep, through my skin and muscles and bone, at first merging with and then consuming my body, reforming in all that heat and pressure into half-dead limbs of stone. (Come home, Judy had whispered over the phone. Just come home Simon, we can get you some help.)
I noticed it first in my hands. The last three knuckles on my left hand half-dissolved into pumice and the fingers on my right hand lengthened into claws of obsidian. Sometimes, in those early nights, I would hold them in front of my headlamp, watching the light struggle to penetrate their depths and not think about Judy, the bookstore, the surface, my home.
I haven't been contacted in a long time.
I remember I would walk slowly between the shelves, arms outstretched, fingertips just brushing the spines of a thousand books. Sometimes, if I had finished all my work, I could have spent hours walking through the bookstore like that.
They were mine.
I caught a glance of my face in someone's goggles, not recognizing myself at first because my cheeks had rippled into some dusty rock that blended into the dull black granite of my lower jaw, my mouth full of gold when I smiled. It was difficult to keep track of days, with every one identical and landmark events rare. So I began scarring the walls around my cot with a spare drill bit. At first I used a simple notation, but found it tiresome and inefficient. So every night, as I fell asleep, I devised increasingly complex notations: bars and loops and slashes and dots that spiraled around my sleeping nook.
But as I look at it now, it seems like nonsense. (Just a mining job.) I have no idea how long I've been working. I haven't been contacted in a long time. I only remember in flickers anymore, like a dying light.
Faces I'd grown used to slowly and suddenly disappeared, probably lost to the vastness of the tunnels or caught unawares by some unholy skittering thing, and new faces appeared, scared or confused or determined. (Simon, we've talked about this, she had said. Not everyone is like you.) Jess or Jessie may have survived a little longer, clutching me in the night and whispering in my ear Simon, What are we doing, or Who are these people, or How much longer are they going to keep us down here, or Are you alright, Simon, you've been so quiet recently. However, the tunnels must have swallowed her at some point. She's not around anymore. If she ever was.
The long row of drillers in Meta Tunnel dwindled; each new shipment seemed smaller than the last, each worker terrified and unable to adapt. By the time I realized my forearms had hardened into exquisite black marble flecked with ruby, only a handful of familiar faces remained, their names and stories hidden behind the veil of dust and oil draped across my memory. Our devices were almost feral then, the tunnel much narrower, the Mine Operator stressing distance over width, saying Just keep it about as wide as a truck. The grinding of stone on stone whenever I moved distracted me. It keeps spreading, and they haven't contacted me.
The last batch of new workers came in a while after Jessie died. During the cave-in. Mark and Danny and her all died during that collapse. I tried to cry, but by then an amethyst film covered my eyes.
Most of those last workers refused to drill at first. (Why did they quit, Simon? Judy had asked, What did you do?) But when the men in white and black uniforms shot a few of them, they lined up with me and drilled just as fervently as I did. My device died sometime after that, and they replaced it with a pickax and a sledgehammer. Something about funds. When someone next to me in line slipped and bashed the ridged basalt of my leg, I bled mercury. I tried to get help but the men in white and black uniforms said, Get back inside 70051, we don't want to shoot you, you work very well. (I asked less of them than I asked of myself.) And I did.
On my last day of work in the bookstore (after Judy left but before I sold it), I brought a can of gas and some matches. I couldn't imagine anyone else sitting behind the counter or walking between the shelves at night. But I couldn't do it. I don't give up.
I realized all the other workers had died. The Mine Operator and the men in white and black uniforms had left, the central cave had mostly collapsed, the entrances were filled with rubble. (Jessie had bunked below me, Danny and Mark closer to the door.) Nonsense scribbled on the wall around my cot. Just a mining job. Everything used to be so clear. (Are you alright, Simon, you've been so quiet recently?) They're not going to contact me. I'm never hungry anymore.
I tried to find Jessie or Judy or someone, but only found more unfinished tunnels.
They'll be coming back soon to check my work; I've made a lot of progress. (Please Simon, she had said.) My tools broke, but it's all right; my hands work well enough these days.