Sulfur: August 2000 • Below: Spring 1990
Soundtrack: “Something from Nothing” by Foo Fighters
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
Sulfur: August 2000
The guy at table five was demanding my attention. This despite the fact that he’d only been seated in my section about thirty seconds ago. And he couldn’t have missed that I was in the middle of taking down the orders of a party of six. Not to mention, there were three other tables with orders up that I had to get out before their fries got cold.
I tore off the ticket, shoved the pad into my jingling pocket, and raised a hand to him, nodding as I dashed for the galley. The man threw his hands in the air with an audible sigh. You’d have thought he was seated at a private table in The Four Seasons instead of DownHome Kitchen in Lincoln, Nebraska, famous for the highly celebrated Mondo Cinnamon Roll.
I served the other tables in record time, my customers oohing and ahhing when I deftly produced a ketchup bottle from each pocket (for some reason, they always found this amazing, like some magic trick), and turned, whipping out my ticket pad, just in time to see Table Five crooking an imperious finger at Ronnie. Ronnie hurried over, a glass of ice water clinking as he set it down before the dandy and asked what he could do to help. “Sir, I am very tired,” said the dandy, loud enough to be heard out in the parking lot. “I have put in a long day. I’ve been sitting here patiently, but I am about to take my appetite elsewhere.”
“Of course, sir. I apologize for your wait.” Ronnie whirled, looking around frantically, almost knocking me over.
“I’ve got customers who’ve been here longer,” I started to explain, but Ronnie interrupted.
“Tori will be happy to take your order now.”
“Oh, surely you have someone more competent than this!” Mr. Fancy-Pants flapped a disdainful hand in my direction without turning his head.
“Of course, sir. One second.” Ronnie hurried off, with me trailing behind him, to the galley where a flurry of waitresses was punching in orders, making salads, whisking plates off the stainless-steel ledge in the cooks’ window. “Trish,” he called as the new girl flitted past with a pitcher. She hesitated, clearly in a hurry. “Table five. Treat him like the president.”
“Big tip in it for you,” I added, waggling my glasses, Groucho-style. I’d had my share of these types. I already knew how it’d play out.
Trish shrugged and handed me her pitcher. “Trade you? Table ten?” But her voice was echoing now, fading as if down a long tunnel. Behind her, through the wide window of the waiting area, I could see the shiny tops of cars in the east parking lot, and beyond that, the busy traffic out on Westgate Boulevard, zipping east and west. Suddenly, those zipping cars were devoured in a blast of yellow fumes that muddied the sky and turned the clouds to sulfur. Some of the cars veered through the guard rails and off the viaduct, smashing down on the railroad tracks below, while others meandered aimlessly, crashing into one another. In the parking lot, the middle-aged couple who’d just paid for their meal of shrimp scampi stood dead in their tracks like two blackened statues, one charred hand still holding the car keys. A gaping crack split Westgate straight down the center, swallowing several vehicles, and as the first dirty flames shot up from the chasm into the sulfur sky, a shadow grew, stretching across the land, engulfing it. From above and below, from everywhere, came laughter, immense and dark.
“Hey, are you deaf?” Fingers snapping under my nose. “Tor. Like she said—table ten.” Ronnie was already hurrying off to answer the phone by the register, as the rattle of cups on saucers, the babble of diners, the ka-ching of the register slowly filtered back into my world. As Ronnie banged the handset back into its cradle, outside, the cars in the east lot sparkled in the late-afternoon sun as several kids whizzed past on bikes.
I squeezed my eyes shut, then popped them open again. “What the fuck?” I muttered before heading off to table ten.
I’d always harbored a secret fear that I was crazy. That the storm predictions were just strange coincidences, that the angels, and my zeroth birthday, were just the conjurations of a deranged mind. But this…this was new. The ice rattled as I shakily filled table ten’s glasses, concealing the fear that I was apparently now hallucinating the end of the world. I went to take their orders and realized I’d used my last ticket.
I came back through the galley looking for a fresh ticket book, past rows of orders-up in the window, the sounds of the restaurant like background static, and then the terror of what I’d just seen won out, and I leaned on the steel work counter, holding the icy pitcher against my forehead. Doc to Doomsday, please come in. If you were here, you’d know what to do. And she would have. Doomsday, aka Marissa, wasn’t afraid of squat.
The last time I saw her, we’d just come off evening shift here.
Before it became the first of the six DownHome Kitchens in the Midwest chain, this restaurant had been a seedy joint called The Pot O’Gold. Or, as Marissa and I used to call it, the Pot. We’d gotten our first after-school jobs here, washing dishes. Many steamy hours were spent scraping half-eaten remains down the garbage disposal while plotting our destinies. I was going to be a storm-chasing meteorologist. Marissa, who’d always been the math maestro, was going to be the Chief Financial Officer of some big-ass company.
What the hell’s going on back here? I jumped, looking around, realizing I’d wandered all the way back through the kitchen, to the industrial sinks and enormous Hobart dishwasher. The voice that had boomed inside my head was that of Mitch Skradsky, owner of the Pot, who used to slam through the double doors, trying to catch us (Marissa, anyhow) getting up to no good. He was never successful. It became a nightly game as we worked, whiling away the hours by laughing too loudly, dropping canisters of forks in the sink, taking bets on how long before Mitch would come busting in to glare daggers at us.
Fun-hater. A raspy, redneck voice mocked, and my breath caught as I blinked back tears, trying not to hear her, to see those dark blue eyes, the favorite red sneakers she’d had on that last night.
“Hey, Marshall!” one of the cooks hollered, waving at all the steaming plates of food in the window. I sighed, pushing back through the doors and grabbing a tray and a ticket book.
Beyond the big window to the west, rays of red and gold shot through narrow seams of black cloud. “Looks like rain,” an elderly woman commented to her husband as I set their meals in front of them. You’re right about that, I thought. Even without the Masters in meteorology that had led to this stunning career, I could’ve informed them we were going to get a fast couple inches late tonight, enough to flood a few basements. I couldn’t predict every single drop of rain or crack of thunder, but pretty damn close. I’d also learned long ago to keep this knowledge to myself if I wanted to have many friends.
In first grade, they’d pointed at me in fear. They’d said I made it happen—bad weather, that is. Because I knew about it ahead of time, I must have caused it.
The one person in this world to whom I could tell anything and everything, who’d always said we were common-law sisters (whatever that meant), was gone. I might be crazy. But somehow, Marissa had always made crazy seem okay.
The Kelvins had lived at the dead end of Burkhardt Street, only a few blocks over from Dad and me, and as soon as we were big enough, it was bike races and tree-climbing and mud castles in the alley. We grew up with the fearful fascination of a shadowy, ubiquitous entity known only as the FBI, which was sometimes a force of good, sometimes not. This could’ve stemmed from the fact that Marissa’s father, Eric Kelvin (aka Rusty), and his brother Deek were always joking how the Effing BI was coming to get them——and they’d get us too, if we didn’t behave.
We were always on the lookout for Rusty. Marissa liked to talk about running away, but she didn’t dare. We didn’t tell grownups how bad things really were, for fear the FBI (later known as Child Protective Services) would take Marissa away and we’d never see each other again.
She was the only soul on Earth who knew my chosen field was born of angels, of this strange ability, the one she liked to joke was caused by a special bone in my head nobody else had. I’d earned my Bachelor’s on a full scholarship to UNL. The Master of Science that followed, however, had cost Dad a significant amount.
The engineering job offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would have meant relocating to Maryland. The forecasting position with the Weather Channel I’d been invited to apply for was in Atlanta. More offers came, over the years. I told no one about all the golden jobs I’d turned down.
Because in the end, how could I leave Lincoln? What if she came back, and I wasn’t here? Our past lived here, our roots, our secrets. If I moved somewhere else, I’d lose her even more.
Below: Spring 1990
Far below Lincoln East High School; below 70th Street; below the city; below the state of Nebraska…in fact, beneath the entire plane on which Middle America exists, a white-clad figure stands at one end of a dark and cavernous warehouse, one hand resting on an elaborate silver lever. Filling the warehouse are banks of pods, each one the size and shape of a coffin, each one sealed with a curving glass lid. Behind the glass, a silver vapor slowly swirls into and out of the mouths and noses of those who slumber within.
Down the rows at regular intervals stand more white figures, impassive but ready in the event that order must be restored. In their hands are metal instruments that coil at one end, encrusted with dully gleaming gems, engraved with crude symbols.
In the darkness above, row by row of large, immobile orbs hanging in midair begin to glow. Wan, white light creeps across the landscape of the warehouse floor until every pod is illuminated.
Another artificial dawn has arrived: The silver lever falls.
From high above, a vast cascade of music rolls forth. It is a consuming rhythm unlike any heard on radios, in concert halls, or anywhere in the history of mankind, the systole and diastole of some gargantuan heart. At the same time, the curving lids that have sealed each pod slide open, the light falling across a silent multitude whose eyes open to stare at nothing, irises still shining silver with the agent swirling in their blood. With the next beat, left feet touch the stone floor: sandaled, flatted, booted, socked. Most shoes are filthy and worn through with holes. Some feet are naked, skin graying, sores appearing.
One is clad in a faded red high-top sneaker.
Beat. Right foot. The pods’ former occupants stand now at attention, corridors of faces, some young, some old, most an unsettling combination of both.
Beat. A slight change in the music, and all turn to face the far wall, where massive scrolling doors are slowly rising to admit the dull, orange glow of heat and fire.
Now, a pounding cadence propels them forward, rank upon rank marching lockstep through the doorways. Some descend into the darkness of the mines below; others turn en masse, like flocks of birds, to populate the workstations, machines, and assembly lines that await them. The distant perimeter of the vast production floor is ringed with the flicker of fires that have smoldered, far below even the deepest mines, since long before the first human ever set foot in this dark place. Great pillars of stone extend from floor to distant ceiling. Around their girth, giant, metal horns twist like serpents, their great, gleaming bells broadcasting the endless music.
At the center of it all rises the music’s source. Towering high above the floor is a giant column made up of heavy rings of metal engraved with complicated circuitry, which spin flawlessly in intricate patterns, generating the rhythmic commands that issue from the horns throughout this colossal facility. At the very top of this apparatus whirls an enormous wheel of lights, flashing a kaleidoscopic mosaic of colors that correspond to the music.
Beat. The ragged masses halt, turn, and stand erect, like machines on standby, as white-clad Supervisors move down the rows. The miners below are handed axes, mallets, wedges, picks; while on the production floor the welders, solderers, and encapsulators are fitted with face shields and specially-made wands. No flux, gases, or electricity required. Above the conveyor belts—pneumatic screwguns, wrenches, sanders, and other, less recognizable tools descend within reach of the assemblers.
The Supervisors are unaffected by the music, which can only command the brains of the captives spellbound by the silvery vapor still coursing through their bloodstreams. Dwarfed by the gigantic doors now closing on the warehouse, the lone white figure stands next to a second silver lever, looks out across the sea of humanity, and nods: All is in place.
The second lever falls.
The music clashes. Like pistons in some monstrous engine, the workers are set in motion, bending, reaching, pivoting, pushing, pulling, lunging. Deep in the mines, picks and hammers fly. No blasting is permitted and use of magic could corrupt the coveted properties of the black crystal layered in seams of rock. It must be extracted the old-fashioned way: with sweat and, frequently, blood. The crystals are sorted at top speed according to size by cracked and bleeding hands that place them in troughs attached to spiral conveyor systems that transfer them to the appropriate manufacturing unit.
Smaller crystals are placed in a magic kiln and blasted with a series of powerful spells that make them deadly to touch. With tongs, the workers retrieve and drop them into a fixture that encapsulates them in a sheath of blue-black metal. The monthly casualty rate on this line is roughly two to three, but the proper protective gear is not cost-effective when most workers die within five months anyway. The clients who buy these probes install them on precision instruments used to monitor levels of magical activity in the most sensitive areas of World Two (known in most circles as “Earth”).
The purest crystals are installed on amplifier boards, which are mounted in blue-black metal cases, which are then welded shut. The workers dart forward, down, up, and back with screwguns and welding wands, sparks exploding; they do not miss a beat, even as their bodies waste away from the constant, brutal motion.
Blue-black metal billets are hollowed on a piercer machine with a 0.0158-inch bore. The resultant capillary tubing will be installed in magical reactant-feed injectors that deliver potions and magical gases in precision doses, neutralizing outbreaks of magic in World Two—thus preventing its discovery.
These production lines, and many more, operate at full bore for ten hours out of twenty-four, seven days a week. Down here, there is no day or night, but the diurnal cycle is regulated to mirror that of World Two. The unit of trade is the U.S. dollar, and company bank accounts reside in Middle America.
Wide conveyor belts transfer finished components through chutes that whoosh them away from the darkness and flame of the factory floor and out into a clean, modern, well-lit shipping/receiving area, where there is no sign of sorcery, of slavery, of the crimes that form the foundation of this enterprise. Here, paid employees in white uniform laugh and chatter while packing the detector probes, magical data loggers, capillary tubes, and other parts into cardboard boxes and wooden crates emblazoned with a curving, blue logo. The shippers seal the boxes and crates and stack them on pallets that will be loaded into the backs of the large, brown trucks that arrive periodically at the ends of the loading docks.
When a shipment is ready, the driver slams the cargo doors, jumps behind the wheel, and accelerates down the long runway sweeping away from the docks and ending at a sharp drop of nearly two thousand feet. The truck zooms over the edge, lifting off into the darkness above a nightscape of vast, yawning canyons, of jagged towers twisting high into the air, of tangled roadways graven into abyssal rock adorned with the hovering white globes that illuminate this undead world.
Like a Cessna angling for a flyover, the truck tilts into a wide arc, the driver deftly spinning the wheel, the logo on the side flashing briefly: UPS. In the next instant—the truck has vanished.
At the north edge of Lincoln, Nebraska, under a brilliant blue sky streaked with mare’s tail clouds, four tires touch down smoothly on a little-used road flanked by rippling alfalfa fields, and the truck motors toward city limits.
In the large parking lot bounded by Magnolia Boulevard, the truck rumbles to a stop, then backs up to a loading dock on the south side of a sprawling, single-story, oddly pink brick building. The driver walks up to the staff door and knocks. An employee signs for the delivery while others unload the cargo. The boxes are cut open, blue-black parts loaded onto the shelves of metal carts that are wheeled away to be installed in magical field instrumentation designed to protect this world from the discovery of magic.
Its cargo hold empty, the brown truck pulls away from the docks, rolling past a wide monument sign bearing the letters NFMA. Near the stone base, mostly hidden by creeping foliage, is a smaller engraving:
The secret is safe.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.