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Stress Test Ch. 16


By Alan GoldPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 8 min read
Image by Comfrea from Pixabay

He could never be sure when it would happen, but some days the men came by to check on Billey's progress.

"That all the further you dug?" Elwood scowled at the hard-won pit, as long and wide as the tank, but no deeper than the boy's knees. "Might as well send you back to school if you can't dig no better than that. How'd ya like that, Billey?"

"Okay, I guess." Billey looked at his arms to see which was cleaner. He couldn't tell the difference, so he wiped the sweat from his forehead with the right one this time. He would try to remember to use the left one next.

Elwood always said he never could figure who was dumber, Otis or his own flesh and blood. Leastwise, Billey had enough sense to keep his mouth shut most of the time. And then the boy went and made a liar out of him.

"I guess you would think that's okay," Elwood said. "That's because you're dumber than a piece of dog shit, Billey. Otherwise you'd be smart enough to know you don't wanna go to school.

"'Sides, I can teach you more in a day here than you're ever gonna learn from them priss-ass teachers of yours. Ain't that right, Otis?"

Otis rubbed the stubble on his chin and said, "Yeah, and he can do his homework on my peter."

"I'm awful thirsty," Billey said. His head throbbed from the heat like it always did when the sun got this high.

"You dig another foot all the way around and we'll get you some water, Billey," Elwood said. "Faster you dig, faster you can drink. Simple as that."

As quick as they came, the men went away, leaving Billey and Black Wolf panting in the sun. Black Wolf draped himself over a pile of cool, fresh dirt and let his tongue hang out like a wet towel flapping in the breeze. His head shook back and forth in time with his heaving sides, but he never took his eyes off Billey.

Billey felt so bad he would have tried drinking creek water if not for the suds. The long walk back to the shack would mean that much less time he'd have for digging, but he figured he'd drop over dead if he didn't get some water. Then there'd be nobody left to dig Elwood's hole for him. He didn't want to be around if that happened.

Billey let his shovel fall. He staggered back to the shack, a journey that seemed to take hours. He weaved and lost focus. He shook his head, but couldn't clear it. At last, he found himself leaning against the shack's rough, bare wood for balance. He spun the knob on the faucet. The water ran hot after standing in the pipes, but he knelt and let it rush over him. He shook his head back and forth, pulling great gulps straight into his belly. The flood over his eyes made the world look the way it did through the shack's smudgy windows.

He couldn't see Black Wolf for the water, but he could hear him prancing and panting and yelping in the spray that bounced from Billey's head.

As the water cooled by degrees, the earth turned to mud beneath him. But he felt cleaner than he ever had. He screwed his head through the blinding stream and held his mouth to the spout.

If he hadn't been so absorbed in the relief the water brought, he might have been warned by the sudden, sharp change in Black Wolf's pitch. Instead, the hands around his ankles took him by surprise. Elwood and Otis each grabbed a leg and jerked it high in the air.

Billey's head smashed the faucet, his shoulder slammed the wall. The world spun upside down.

The two men stood there with Billey hanging between them like a wishbone as Black Wolf snapped and snarled at their heels.

"Couldn't wait for your drink, could you, Billey?" Elwood shouted between breaths shortened by the excitement. "Here's all the water you want." He grunted and propped his leg so Billey's head split the downpour from the faucet.

The water rushed up Billey's nose, flushing the air from his mouth until the men dumped him in the mud.

"Just come on up here any time you get thirsty," Elwood said. "We've got plenty of water for you."

By the time they hauled him back down to the pit, the mud had already caked on his skin. His sopping clothes made his movements slow and squishy. He stayed cooler for awhile, but as the fabric dried, the heat crowded down on him again and drew his sweat back into the cloth.

It had only taken the sun a few days to bake that big wall of weeds down to a crisp, little pile. The tank stood out plain as a harvest pumpkin. Elwood got so antsy he nearly took up a shovel.

"Blind man could see that tank," he said, pacing back and forth in front of it. "You 'spect me to stay up all night guardin' it? I 'spect you'd best dig faster if ya know what's good for ya."

The job was bad enough without his daddy's fussing, unbearable with it. Billey fought the earth with his spade from early until half past late, but he could scarcely see a difference from one day to the next. A mighty hole yawned before him in his dreams, so the shallow pit of reality always brought disappointment in the morning.

One dream gave him hope.

Billey hadn't yet started school when the tornado came. Elwood fished his pocket for a cigarette while they sat on the porch watching the storm build up that afternoon long ago. The sky grew dark and the wind came down the way carrying half the road with it. Hard, white beans of hail clattered against the roof.

"Damn, Billey I'm outta smokes," Elwood said, slapping the porch's warm, gray wood. "Run yonder to the truck and see if I got a pack in there."

Billey stuck his hand out just long enough to feel the sharp sting of the hail. He looked up at Elwood like there must be some mistake.

"Go on, ya little bastard." Elwood planted his foot on Billey's butt and pushed him to the edge of the porch. Billey lost his balance and fell into the open at the precise moment the hail stopped.

"Now git on over there." Elwood's voice boomed against the sudden silence so that he seemed to surprise himself with how loud he sounded. He lowered it to a coarse whisper. "Do what I tell ya now."

Billey picked himself up from the mud and ran for the camper. He hadn't scrambled six steps over the slippery hail stones when he saw the dirty, howling finger of God dragging across the earth the way Billey's finger mopped bean juice up from the bottom of the bowl.

He froze in his tracks, which set his daddy to cussing again. Elwood came down from the porch to whup him, and then he saw it, too.

"Look at that muthah!" He cried in a voice Billey didn't recognize. He sprinted for the pickup. "Billey, move your ass," he shouted over his shoulder, "'cause I sure ain't gonna wait for no turd-brain bastard like you."

Billey wasn't quick enough. He wasn't even sure which was worse, his daddy or this terrible new thing. Elwood gunned the pickup and sent gravel flying. When the stones met the wind, they hung in the air like they'd suddenly forgotten where they were going. Billey had dived between the cinder blocks that held the camper by the time the truck fishtailed onto the pavement.

As he watched, he couldn't tell if the sky had torn down into the bowels of the earth, or if the earth and spouted up to the sky. It looked like a fat, wicked bolt of black lightning that never stopped flashing as it jerked closer and closer to the camper.

Billey's fingers clawed the ground. He wanted to bury his face in the dirt, but he couldn't look away from his fate.

The tornado rushed within an inch of the camper when it broke its path and headed up the road Elwood had taken.

A few, terrible moments in Billey's life fed his nightmares for years. So many times, the tornado made his eyes fly open in the middle of the night. He felt his jaw ache, felt his fingers digging into his palms through his once-green blanket, felt he would never be free of the terror.

But since he began digging, the tornado dreams had changed. Now he saw a tool that scooped dirt and rocks in an instant to make way for the tank.

Now he remembered the fear etched across his daddy's face the day Elwood ran for the pickup.

Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.

Read the next chapter.


Complete novel is available on


About the Creator

Alan Gold

Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.

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